5 May 2020

Researchers double US Covid-19 death forecast, citing eased restrictions

4:37 pm on 5 May 2020

A newly revised coronavirus mortality model predicts nearly 135,000 Americans will die from Covid-19 by early August, almost double previous projections, as social-distancing measures for quelling the pandemic are increasingly relaxed, researchers said.

A medical worker outside the  Elmhurst Hospital Center in the Queens borough of New York City on 26 March 2020.

A medical worker outside the Elmhurst Hospital Center in the Queens borough of New York City. Photo: AFP

The ominous new forecast from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) reflected "rising mobility in most US states" with an easing of business closures and stay-at-home orders expected in 31 states by 11 May, the institute said.

"We expect that the epidemic in many states will now extend through the summer," IHME director Dr Christopher Murray, said in a statement.

The projections reinforced warnings from public health experts that a rising clamor to lift restrictions on commerce and social activities - in hopes of healing a ravaged economy - could exact a staggering cost in terms of human lives.

The Covid-19 coronavirus is already known to have infected almost 1.2 million people in the US, with 68,762 deaths, Reuters' tally suggests.

A funeral home employee loads a body to be transported a refrigerated trailer in New York City.

A funeral home employee loads a body to be transported a refrigerated trailer in New York City. Photo: afp

The institute's predictive modelling, periodically revised to account for changing circumstances and scientific insights surrounding the pandemic, has become an influential data point often cited by the White House and public health authorities in gauging the crisis.

The IHME projections are presented as a statistical range of outcomes. The latest forecast predicts the cumulative number of US deaths from Covid-19 will run from as few as 95,092 to as many as 242,890 by 4 August with 134,475 lives lost representing the most likely, middle ground.

By comparison, the previous revision issued on 29 April put the middle-case figure at 72,400 deaths, within a range between 59,300 and 114,200 fatalities.

Eased social distancing

The upward spike reflects increasing human interactions as more states begin to ease social-distancing requirements - the chief public health tool available to curb the spread of a highly contagious virus for which there is no vaccine and no cure.

The relaxation of social-distancing rules will more than offset any decline in transmissions that might come from warmer weather and stronger containment measures, such as more wide-scale testing and tracing the contacts of infected people so they too can be tested and isolated, Murray said.

The revised IHME projections coincided with disclosure of an internal Trump administration forecast predicting a surge in Covid-19 cases killing 3000 Americans a day by the end of May, up from a current daily toll that a Reuters tally places at around 2000.

That projection, first reported by the New York Times and confirmed by a Reuters source, also forecast about 200,000 new coronavirus cases each day by the end of the month, up from the current rate of about 25,000 cases every 24 hours.

Trump's predictions

Asked about the confidential forecast, White House spokesman Judd Deere said: "This is not a White House document, nor has it been presented to the Coronavirus Task Force or gone through interagency vetting."

US President Donald Trump has given varying predictions for the number of people in the United States who will succumb to Covid-19. As recently as Friday, he said he hoped fewer than 100,000 Americans would die, and had talked last week of 60,000 to 70,000 deaths.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference on the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC on April 27, 2020.

US President Donald Trump has acknowledged the death toll may climb higher. Photo: AFP

But on Sunday night, the president acknowledged the death toll may climb much higher.

"We're going to lose anywhere from 75,800 to 100,000 people. That's a horrible thing," he told Fox News.

In New York, the state that accounts for about a third of all US infections, Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday outlined plans to ease restrictions on a regional basis.

Without giving a specific time frame, Cuomo told a daily briefing that construction, manufacturing and the wholesale supply chain would be allowed to start up under the first phase of a four-step return to normality.

A second phase would permit insurance, retail, administrative support and real estate businesses to open again, followed by restaurants, food services, hotels and accommodation businesses in the third stage, Cuomo said.

In the final phase, arts, entertainment and recreation facilities and education would restart.

Cuomo suggested that rural parts of New York might be relaxed ahead of "higher-risk regions," including New York City.

California Governor Gavin Newsom said on Monday he would ease the state's stay-at-home orders by Thursday, expanding the number of retail businesses that could provide curbside services.

"This is an optimistic day, as we see a little bit of a ray of sunshine," Newsom told a news conference.

Florida began a gradual restart of its economy on Monday. In the first phase, retail merchants and restaurants will open, with indoor patronage limited to 25 percent of capacity. Eateries are also allowed to open outdoor seating with social distancing, and medical practices can resume elective surgeries and procedures.

In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine was allowing construction and manufacturing to reopen on Monday, and letting office workers return.

- Reuters

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