By Nikhila Natarajan
New York, April 1: The Donald Trump administration revealed for the first time multiple predictive models that are being used to estimate its grim assessment of a 100,000-200,000 coronavirus death toll in the country and stressed that community adherence to social distancing guidelines will be the game changer that will flatten the curve.
“There’s no magic bullet. There’s no magic vaccine or therapy. It’s just behaviours. Each of our behaviours, translating into something that changes the course of this viral pandemic over the next 30 days,” Dr Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response co-ordinator, said at a briefing on Tuesday.
“Americans should be prepared for that (death toll). Yes, it is a projection but that’s what it is and we have to be prepared for that,” America’s top infectious diseases doctor Dr. Anthony Fauci said at the same briefing headlining charts that have guided Trump administration’s decision to extend social distancing guidelines until April 30. The first phase of the 15-day stay-at-home guidelines came on March 16.
“This is the thing that we must anticipate,” Fauci said pointing to the peak death toll projections, “but we don’t want to accept that is what will happen.”
“We can influence this to the maximum degree.”
In all of the graphs, New York and New Jersey are the standout lines, inching sharply upwards as the rest of the states cluster closer to the X-axis.
Projections by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle are closest to the White House take on the situation.
The IHME graph is heavily laden with data from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, said Birx, because that is where caseload is highest.
As of Tuesday morning, the IHME forecast predicted about 84,000 US deaths through early August, with the highest number of daily deaths occurring April 15. That would be three days after Easter.
The 100,000-200,000 death toll projection “assumes full mitigation measures” currently in place, according to Birx and Fauci. Those guidelines stop short of a complete lockdown, still allowing people to go outside the home for solitary activities and for essential tasks.
“We trust the American people to keep that six feet distance when they go out, meet people. That is why we have not issued a complete lockdown”, Birx said. She said that if people maintain “that six feet distance”, they have controlled the virus.
Dr. Deborah Birx said data coming from Italy offers hope for the US experience.
“You can see that they’re beginning to turn the corner in new cases. They’re entering their fourth week of full mitigation and showing what is possible when we work together as a community, as a country, to change the course of this pandemic together.”
The US government is calling on “every American in every state” to follow the mitigation guidelines for the next 30 days. The guidelines are not mandatory.
Responding to questions on the alarming numbers on the charts, Fauci said, “Everytime we get more data, we put it back into the model and see if the model is making sense.”
The models use statistical analysis to predict the outbreak’s ferocity and impact in terms of infections, hospital caseload and death toll.
Fauci remains confident that mitigation “is going to be doing the trick for us”. The effects, he said, would come in a series of steps and therefore won’t show on the charts in real time.
“When the increase in new cases begin to level off, a secondary effect is less hospitalisations. The next effect is less intensive care. And the next effect is less deaths. I don’t want to jump the gun on it, we’re seeing little inklings of this right now in New York,” Fauci said.
Fauci and Birx have cautioned that cases will continue to go up in the “next several days to a week or so” reflecting caseload that came in before states issued stay-at-home orders.
“We cannot be discouraged by that because the mitigation is actually working, and will work.”
(Nikhila Natarajan can be reached at @byniknat)