‘Deadly December’ expected with 30,000 daily coronavirus deaths

A key forecasting model used by experts has revised its prediction of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., now estimating a peak of 410,451 dead Americans by January 1.

The study also says as many as 122,000 of those deaths could be avoided with safety measures, including near-universal mask use, but it warns that easing restrictions could raise the American death toll to more than 620,000.

In the first global projections of the COVID-19 pandemic by nation, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine is predicting nearly 770,000 lives worldwide could be saved between now and January 1 through proven measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing. 

Cumulative deaths expected by January 1 total 2.8 million, about 1.9 million more from now until the end of the year. Daily deaths in December could reach as high as 30,000. 

“These first-ever worldwide projections by country offer a daunting forecast as well as a roadmap toward relief from COVID-19 that government leaders as well as individuals can follow,” said IHME Director Dr. Christopher Murray. 

“We are facing the prospect of a deadly December, especially in Europe, Central Asia, and the United States,” said Murray. “But the science is clear and the evidence irrefutable: mask-wearing, social distancing, and limits to social gatherings are vital to helping prevent transmission of the virus.” 

The Institute modeled three scenarios:  

  • A “worse case” in which mask usage stays at current rates and governments continue relaxing social distancing requirements, leading to 4.0 million total deaths by the end of the year;  
  • A “best case” of 2.0 million total deaths if mask usage is near-universal and governments impose social distancing requirements when their daily death rate exceeds 8 per million; and  
  • A “most likely” scenario that assumes individual mask use and other mitigation measures remain unchanged, resulting in approximately 2.8 million total deaths.  

The references to 750,000 lives saved and 30,000 daily deaths in December represent the differences between the “best case” and “most likely” scenarios. 

Each of these scenarios represents a significant increase over the current total deaths, estimated at nearly 910,000 worldwide. The increase is due in part to a likely seasonal rise in COVID-19 cases in the Northern Hemisphere. 

To date, COVID-19 has followed seasonal patterns similar to pneumonia, and if that correlation continues to hold, northern countries can anticipate more cases in the late fall and winter months. 

“People in the Northern Hemisphere must be especially vigilant as winter approaches, since the coronavirus, like pneumonia, will be more prevalent in cold climates,” Murray said. 

Murray highlighted the unprecedented opportunity to save lives with rapid action. 

“Looking at the staggering COVID-19 estimates, it’s easy to get lost in the enormity of the numbers,” Murray said. “The number of deaths exceeds the capacity of the world’s 50 largest stadiums, a sobering image of the people who have lost their lives and livelihoods.”  

Under the most likely of IHME’s scenarios, the nations with the highest per capita total deaths would be the US Virgin Islands, the Netherlands, and Spain. By WHO region, this scenario projects 959,685 total deaths by January 1 in the Region of the Americas, 667,811 in the European Region, 79,583 in the African Region, 168,711 in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, 738,427 in the South-East Asia Region, and 191,598 in the Western Pacific Region. 

“We all must learn from those leaders of nations where the virus has been contained, or where second waves of infections have occurred, and where swift action has been taken to prevent loss of life,” Murray said.  

He also cautioned against pursuing the so-called “herd immunity” strategy, which occurs when a large proportion of a community becomes immune to the virus through infection and recovery. The “worse-case” scenario in these projections reflects a situation where leaders allow transmission to run through their population, resulting in significant loss of life. 

Conservative neuroradiologist Scott Atlas, a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution who joined the White House in August as a pandemic adviser, advocated that the United States respond to the virus outbreak without lockdown orders or closing schools and businesses. 

That the brutal approach is even being discussed in the White House is a subject of concern among experts who say that a herd immunity strategy could lead to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lost American lives.

“The administration faces some pretty serious hurdles in making this argument. One is a lot of people will die, even if you can protect people in nursing homes,” said Paul Romer, a professor at New York University who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2018. “Once it’s out in the community, we’ve seen over and over again, it ends up spreading everywhere.”

“This first global forecast represents an opportunity to underscore the problem with herd immunity, which, essentially, ignores science and ethics, and allows millions of avoidable deaths,” Murray said. “It is, quite simply, reprehensible.” 

The White House on Thursday denied that Trump or his administration ever considered a policy of “herd immunity” for COVID-19 infections.

“The herd immunity so-called theory was something made up in the fanciful minds of the media. That was never something that was ever considered here at the White House,” press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters during a briefing. 

Top 10 nations with the highest cumulative deaths on January 1: 

Worse-case scenarioMost likely scenarioBest-case scenario
India: 916,688 (range of 562,203–1,431,708)India: 659,537 (range of 415,118–1,087,533)India: 484,981 (range of 316,111–819,426)
United States of America: 620,029 (range of 463,361–874,649)United States of America: 410,451 (range of 347,551–515,272)United States of America: 288,381 (range of 257,286–327,775)
Brazil: 177,299 (range of 166,656–189,259)Brazil: 174,297 (range of 163,982–185,913)Brazil: 160,567 (range of 152,483–169,483)
Mexico: 157,264 (range of 139,863–183,739)Mexico: 138,828 (range of 125,763–156,493)Mexico: 130,545 (range of 118,201–147,963)
Japan: 287,635 (range of 25,669–758,716)Japan: 120,514 (range of 10,301–492,791)Japan: 104,808 (range of 7,971–456,224)
Spain: 180,904 (range of 97,665–282,075)Spain: 69,445 (range of 43,306–122,913)Spain: 66,508 (range of 41,980–117,239)
Philippines: 117,721 (range of 27,525–176,324)Philippines: 58,412 (range of 7,660–136,079) France: 73,743 (range of 44,693–161,349)Philippines: 58,030 (range of 7,552–137,358)
France: 116,415 (range of 51,021–342,047)France: 73,743 (range of 44,693–161,349)
United Kingdom: 69,548 (range of 59,680–96,669)
France: 46,623 (range of 38,070–69,559)
Russian Federation: 112,367 (range of 63,165–214,363) Russian Federation: 94,905 (range of 57,575–170,048)
Russian Federation: 94,905 (range of 57,575–170,048)
Chart from Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation Population Health Building/Hans Rosling Center

IHME’s projections are based on an epidemiological model that includes data on cases, deaths, and antibody prevalence, plus location-specific COVID-19 testing rates, mobility, social distancing mandates, mask use, population density, age structure, and pneumonia seasonality, which shows a strong correlation with the trajectory of COVID-19.? 

The new projections, including additional forecasts of daily infections, are available at?https://covid19.healthdata.org/ and will be regularly updated moving forward. 

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