It is human nature to seek a light at the end of a tunnel, and it’s no different now as the country, the state and the region try to emerge from the novel coronavirus tunnel. A recent update of an oft-cited model projecting the virus’ progress may offer such a light. That would be promising, but nobody should think it will be any easier to get to the tunnel’s end.
This week, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation updated its projections for the number of deaths and peak demand in each state for hospital services due to COVID-19, and the revisions went in a hopeful direction. Previously, the IHME model estimated there would be 94,000 deaths from the virus nationwide by late summer. Based on newer data, the estimate has been lowered to 60,400 deaths by early August, a number that is still chillingly grim. Also, the IHME model now projects demand on hospitals to peak nationally on Saturday (April 11). Here in New Hampshire, the model now estimates the peak will occur a bit later, on April 16, but that’s earlier than the April 30 date previously forecast for the state.
Welcome news, for sure, but news that should not let anyone think either that the end of the crisis is near or that the stay-at-home, business-closing and other restrictions can be lifted soon. First, the updating of the IHME model factors in the beneficial effect that the social distancing restrictions are having. Just as importantly, the model’s improved projections result from assumptions based on those restrictions staying in place at least through early June, which is when the IHME model now suggests this current pandemic wave could end in the U.S.
Further cause for caution is that the IHME model, though cited by the Trump administration in its statements about COVID-19’s course, is not the only reputable projection model out there, and the others differ in significant respects. For example, the model being used by Washington, D.C., predicts the peak will occur there much later than now forecast by the IHME model, according to The Washington Post. And no matter what the model, they all will change based on actual experience. As Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who’s emerged as the administration’s most trustworthy spokesman on the coronavirus, said at a recent press briefing, “Models are as good as the assumptions you put into them, and as we get more data, then you put it in and that might change.”
Disturbingly, and dangerously, there are those who have sought to downplay the severity of COVID-19’s public health threat and to argue for a rapid return to normal life. The worry is that they will seize on the rosier — or, we’d say, the somewhat less dire — IHME projections to press for relaxing the social-distancing restrictions sooner. It will take discipline and resolve, certainly from the nation’s governors and hopefully from the Trump administration, too, to resist this, a point quickly and emphatically made here in New Hampshire by Gov. Chris Sununu.
In an appearance on WMUR Wednesday, Sununu fielded a question about the coronavirus crisis from a viewer asking when restrictions would be lifted because “we can see this isn’t killing the millions like we were told.” To his credit, the governor jumped all over the questioner’s premise, saying that “the idea that this isn’t killing millions of people, so we can just go back to the way it was, that is a horrible, horrible misunderstanding of the situation.” He then went on to emphasize that “the big fear is that, if we ... go back to, quote, ‘normal,’ too quickly, you’re going to see another spike, and a second spike could be even worse than the first.”
Certainly, a light at the end of the tunnel is anxiously sought and a welcome sight. But there can be no letting up on social distancing to get there. In the governor’s words, “We gotta stay disciplined.”