U.S. Covid-19 death toll surpasses 200,000

Image: medpagetoday

A prediction made in March
— unthinkable at the time — did arrive. 

WASHINGTON D.C. (NBC News) – On March 30, 2020, Dr. Deborah Birx stepped in front of the cameras on the White House lawn and made an alarming prediction about the coronavirus, which had, by then, killed fewer than 3,000 people in the United States. “If we do things together, well, almost perfectly, we can get in the range of 100,000 to 200,000 fatalities,” Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force, told Savannah Guthrie of NBC News’ “Today” show.

Yesterday, Saturday, September 19, 2020, Dr. Birx’s prediction came true, as the number of lives lost to Covid-19 in the U.S. topped 200,000.

Experts like Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said it didn’t have to be this way. “Tens of thousands of people would not have died if the U.S. response had been more effective,” said Frieden, now president of Resolve to Save Lives, a global public health initiative.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said Birx’s prediction in late March was “very sobering.” That was the time, he said, to develop and implement a plan to stop or slow the spread of the virus.

That didn’t happen then, and it hasn’t happened since. “Where is our national plan?” Osterholm asked. “How are we this far along, and we don’t have one?” We have a long way to go,” he added.

Indeed, the country still faces many challenges in overcoming the pandemic, including agreeing on even the most basic facts. Americans are still fighting over whether to wear masks, whether the virus is real or a hoax if it is serious, and to what extent it’s safe to reopen certain businesses and resume certain activities.

In short, a large percentage of Americans — government officials included — still aren’t doing precisely what is required.

Another gloomy prediction

Now, many experts are making another ominous prediction: A surge in the number of new infections in the fall and winter, combined with growing fatigue over social distancing and other public health measures, could result in more than 415,000 deaths in the U.S. by January, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, or IHME, at the University of Washington.

The prediction comes as the pandemic has spread, it has moved into younger, healthier populations, who are less likely to die from Covid-19.

The IHME model is one of several that the CDC uses to track the pandemic’s evolution, but it has faced its share of skepticism. The model often includes high degrees of uncertainty, and it was criticized early on for underestimating the number of deaths nationwide. For example, in April, the IHME model projected that the death toll in the U.S. through August could be 60,415. However, the prediction included a wide range to account for uncertainties early in the pandemic. Its sort of like a train wreck that we know is unfolding, and people keep grasping some idea that it’s not that bad.

The model is continuously being refined to provide more accurate scenarios. Still, most researchers in the modeling community had been warning for months that the pandemic could have a severe death toll. Murray said that it’s the type of insight that makes the 200,000-death milestone all the more frustrating.

Covid-19 has killed people of all ages, all races, and all political affiliations. They include a veteran emergency medical technician with the New York Fire Department. A pastor in Texas. A nurse in South Carolina. Children who have succumbed to a rare inflammatory complication of the disease called MIS-C.

A team at Northeastern University in Boston created a model that provides state and nationwide projections for up to four weeks in the future — akin to a weather forecast. Beyond four weeks, too many unknown factors can dilute the model’s accuracy. Managing the factors that can be controlled will be crucial in the months ahead, mainly because most scientists anticipate a new wave of infections in the fall and winter, coinciding with flu season.

The IHME model’s prediction that the U.S. will double its number of Covid-19 deaths by January, to 415,000