U.S. COVID-19 Death Forecast Fast Approaching Original White House Estimate

The number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. is now forecast to reach over 200,000 by October 1, a figure that is quickly approaching the original, high-end estimate put out by the White House in April. The model from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) now suggests there will be between 117,551 to 269,395 deaths from coronavirus by this point.

This figure is coming in line with the death toll originally forecast by the White House towards the start of the pandemic. In April, Deborah Birx from the White House Coronavirus Task Force said models were showing the U.S. could expect between 100,000 and 240,000 coronavirus deaths with strict social distancing measures. At the time, these figures were questioned, with experts saying there was little information about how it was calculated.

Around a week later, Dr. Anthony Fauci told the NBC's TODAY Show the White House death toll estimate was probably too high, saying it would likely be closer to 60,000. This was more in line with the forecast from the IHME.

However, as states began lifting lockdown restrictions, models forecasting death tolls started to trend upward. On April 21, the IHME forecast 60,308 coronavirus deaths in the U.S. by August 4. This figure has now more than doubled, with 149,690 predicted by this point. According to Johns Hopkins University at time of writing, there have been 118,435 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the U.S..

Professor Lauren Ancel Meyers, Director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, told Newsweek their forecasts have "also begun to bend upwards" in a number of states and cities. She said the number of deaths may increase in some of these areas over the coming weeks as "the virus is now spreading more quickly."

The University of Texas model projects 135,641 deaths by July 15.

Professor Meyers said they have known from the start that how the pandemic will play out will depend on what steps are taken to slow the spread of the virus: "The lowest [White House] estimates were based on scenarios in which we successfully prevented widespread transmission. Unfortunately, we haven't succeeded in that.

"New York experienced an initial wave that led to many deaths. Now, with the relaxation of social distancing measures, cities throughout the U.S. are starting to see increases in transmission. That said, the high death projections are not inevitable." Measures to reduce the spread, including face masks, social distancing and isolating if sick can help change the course of the projections, she said.

The U.S. is currently the worst affected country in the world for total COVID-19 cases and deaths. It has been suggested a slow initial response to the virus facilitated its spread. A non-centralized approach, with states able to decide their own lockdown measures, has also been cited.

Professor Meyers says the number of deaths depends on how many cases you have, and how severe the disease is. Case numbers can be lowered by taking steps to prevent transmission, she said. Fatalities can also be reduced by protecting those most vulnerable to the disease, including nursing home residents, while drugs and advances in medical care can also lower the number of deaths.

Discussing why the U.S. death toll is so high, she said that although many states and cities took aggressive steps to limit transmission, there were initial waves that led to many deaths. "Now that we have started to reopen, we are seeing a resurgence of the pandemic that is leading to increasing numbers of hospitalizations and deaths in some parts of the country," Professor Meyers said.

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President Donald Trump stands next to a graph during a daily briefing on March 31, 2020. The IHME model now says there could be over 200,000 deaths by October 1. Win McNamee/Getty Images

"As we look around the world, there is a relationship between the interventions imposed and the number of deaths." She and her team recently published research using data from cities in China that showed a one day delay in implementing interventions led to 2.5 more days of having to fight the pandemic.

"Many communities in the US began relaxing measures in May and June before the situation was safe. At the time of opening, the first wave was not yet contained and some communities did not yet have robust programs for rapidly containing outbreaks through testing, contact tracing and isolating cases."

The U.S. is currently experiencing the first wave of the pandemic. There are concerns that China is about to see a second wave of the virus after a spike in cases in Beijing.

The IHME is now predicting a second wave will start in the U.S. on September 15. In a statement released on June 11, the institute said deaths will likely remain "fairly level" in August before a "more pronounced increase" the following month. States with early increases in deaths according to current models are Arizona, Colorado, Florida and Georgia, it said.

Christopher Murray, director of the IHME, said in a statement: "We hope to see our model proven wrong by the swift actions governments and individuals take to reduce transmission... If the US is unable to check the growth in September, we could be facing worsening trends in October, November, and the following months if the pandemic, as we expect, follows pneumonia seasonality."

Professor Meyers said a September peak in deaths is plausible—but that it is not certain. "If communities are not taking sufficient precautions, we could see the pandemic spread even more quickly," she said. "On the other hand, if we succeed in slowing spread, we may be able to prevent large surges in deaths for the foreseeable future."