Coronavirus Models & Projections — That Death Toll Is Climbing Closer to That Projection

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A member of the medical staff shows a used sample container at a test center for coronavirus disease in Berlin, Germany, April 6, 2020. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

I don’t get all that upset when people point out that the projections from the model from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation often turns out to be far from reality. This model is trying to account for all kinds of variables that can’t be known, only estimated and guessed. (Think of my example of the infection on the beach, and whether the person returns to a sparsely populated young community or a densely populated old community. One small variable, far-reaching consequences for the number of infections and deaths.)

At the beginning of the month, the U.S. started reporting around 1,000 deaths per day — a terrible toll, but at that pace, the idea of reaching the model’s estimated 68,000 deaths by the start of summer seemed pretty hard to envision. But starting April 7, the United States started reporting daily figures closer to 2,000 per day.

As of this writing, our total death toll is almost at 51,000, and reaching the IHME model’s current estimate of around 67,000 doesn’t seem too hard to envision at all. Hopefully the current pace will slow, but if it doesn’t, we will hit that painful threshold in early May . . . not all that far from what the model projected. We are likely to surpass more than a million cases within the next day or so.

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If you want to argue that the IHME model is often far off in its estimates for the next day, fine. It has been. If you want to argue that policymakers should not base their decisions about reopening society and the economy on that model alone, fine. It is not a crystal ball. The hospitalization rates have been significantly lower than the model projected in much of the country, but with some glaring exceptions in some hard-hit areas. (For what it’s worth, the IHME model now says we’re past peak hospital use.) Policymakers have to weigh the risk of a higher rate of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths against the risks of continuing the de facto shutdown of everything in America except hospitals, grocery stores, and take-out food.

But to the extent the IHME model’s message has been: “Warning, this is a terrible and contagious virus that is on pace to kill tens of thousands of Americans, and it will require significant social distancing just to mitigate, never mind stop . . .” that conclusion from the projections is the right one!

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