This much is clear: The fall COVID-19 wave will cause tens, and maybe hundreds, of thousands more deaths.
Some epidemiologists are forecasting a staggeringly high death toll over the coming months. The U.S. COVID-19 death toll currently stands at 259,045, according to Johns Hopkins. According to Seattle’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a widely cited model, that number could reach 471,000 by the end of February.
That estimate would represent an additional 212,000 deaths within a month of inauguration day.
Already, the wave of nearly uncontrolled spread around the country is flooding hospital wards and stressing testing capacity as millions of Americans prepare to travel for Thanksgiving.
Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at IHME, told TPM that the country was seeing a massive rise in cases and, likely, deaths because case rates plateaued at a high level after the summer outbreaks in the Sun Belt, and did not fall much before beginning to climb again in the fall.
“We didn’t expect in the summer that the numbers would go up that high, because we thought that people would move their activities outdoors,” Mokdad said.
But how high the death toll ultimately climbs will depend on several factors. The IHME model forecasts 442,000 deaths by inauguration day itself, should mask, distancing, and other mandates be eased over the next few months.
“Cases are rising in nearly every jurisdiction in he country,” Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir told reporters in a Tuesday press call, saying that the holiday had the potential to make the situation explode.
Estimates of the death toll begin to broaden the further out in time that they project. In July, experts TPM spoke with estimated that the pandemic would deal between 260,000 and 500,000 deaths to the U.S. by the end of 2020.
The Centers for Disease Control assembles an average of different models to forecast what the mortality trends of COVID may be for the coming month. That estimate forecasts a death toll of nearly 300,000 by December 15.
Mokdad, the IHME epidemiologist, said that Thanksgiving gatherings could create a series of “superspreaders” around the country. But he added that a number of variables make it difficult to predict how many could end up dying in hospitals around the country.
For one thing, doctors have learned to treat COVID-19 more effectively than they were able to in the spring, and have limited supplies of medicines like Regeneron at their disposal to help people.
In New York City’s outbreak from March to June, for example, the CDC found that the fatality rate among those hospitalized with COVID-19 was 32 percent. (That estimate may be skewed due to limited testing in the five boroughs.)
Now, according to one analysis of data, the death rate for those hospitalized dropped to 3.7 percent in September.
But others warn that as hospitals lower standards of care as they fight COVID-19 and are forced to make difficult decisions on how to triage patients, that number could tick back up.
“We’re concerned that we will see an increase in the fatality rate simply because the physicians and the nurses are working long shifts, they’re taking care of more patients,” Mokdad added. “We haven’t seen it yet, but we know it’s coming.”