Models shift to predict dramatically more U.S. deaths as states relax social distancing

Source: Politico | May 4, 2020 | Alice Miranda Ollstein and Caitlin Oprysko

A key model favored by the White House nearly doubled its prediction to 134,000 fatalities by August

A key model of the coronavirus pandemic favored by the White House nearly doubled its prediction Monday for how many people will die from the virus in the U.S. by August – primarily because states are reopening too soon.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine is now projecting 134,000 coronavirus-related fatalities, up from a previous prediction of 72,000. Factoring in the scientists’ margin of error, the new prediction ranges from 95,000 to 243,000.

Dr. Christopher Murray, the director of IMHE, told reporters on a call Monday the primary reason for the increase is many states’ “premature relaxation of social distancing.”

For the first time, Murray explained, the model is factoring in data from four different cell phone providers showing a major uptick in Americans’ going out in public.

This rise of mobility in the last week or 10 days is likely leading to an increase in transmission, he said.

Monday’s update is the fourth since the model debuted in late March. It’s been relied on by the White House in recent months because it presents a more optimistic forecast on health system capacity, cases and deaths than other experts have predicted.

Even with its latest forecast, the University of Washington model is still far more optimistic than a model developed by Johns Hopkins for CDC predicting as many as 3,000 deaths per day by June. Murray said that model, which the New York Times published Monday, is likely inaccurate.

“Our numbers are nowhere near that level,” he said, noting that IMHE is forecasting 890 deaths per day by June 1. “This relates very much to whether the models think there is going to be a large, New York-style epidemic in some states. We don’t see that because we’re building into the modeling the rising temperatures and rising testing and contact tracing. That will put the brakes on transmission enough that we won’t see 3,000 deaths a day by June 1.”


The CDC document projects north of 175,000 new cases of Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, each day. That’s up from about 25,000 new cases per day last week and more than four times the peak of about 37,000 new cases per day.

The alarming modeling comes as some states are already beginning to put parts of the White House’s phased reopening plan into motion despite concerns that the administration’s guidelines for doing so have not yet been met. It also underscores fears that moving too fast to relax strict social-distancing restrictions could fuel a dangerous second wave of infections.


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