With the coronavirus rampant around the nation, the question on everyone’s minds is, “How bad is it going to get?”
Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said earlier this week that the upcoming months — even as the nation begins to roll out vaccines — could be “the most difficult in the public health history of this nation.”
“The reality is, December and January and February are going to be tough times,” said Redfield, speaking at an event with the US Chamber of Commerce.
Modelers who are trying to look into the future have sketched out a wide variety of scenarios, from the optimistic to the horrific. But the general gist, said Alessandro Vespignani, professor of physics, computer science, and health science at Northeastern University, is that “things are getting worse.”
So what can we expect over the next few weeks? See the graphics below to better understand where we could be headed.
A key forecast says cases and deaths will stay high over the next several weeks.
An “ensemble forecast” from a lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst collects and combines a number of models in order to draw on their collective wisdom. It foresees US weekly cases generally continuing at high levels, and weekly deaths gradually growing.
The onslaught of cases and deaths will take their toll. The cumulative number of US confirmed and probable coronavirus deaths will climb to about 317,000 by Dec. 26, the forecast says.
The UMass lab’s forecast, which it compiles weekly and shares with the CDC, only covers a four-week window to make it more accurate. This forecast covers the period from Nov. 28 to Dec. 26.
Any individual model “might have a misfire from time to time” so making an ensemble model is a way “to catch those fluctuations and always have some solid, coherent forecast that is emerging from the consensus of the various different models,” said Vespignani, whose own model is one of those factored into the ensemble forecast.
“At the moment, the model is calling for action. It’s telling us we need to do something,” said Vespignani.
Massachusetts cases are expected to remain high, and deaths are expected to gradually rise
Massachusetts has been hit less hard than some other states. But it is in the midst of a second surge, and on Wednesday and Thursday reported its two highest one-day case totals so far, raising questions about where the state is headed.
The UMass model for Massachusetts calls for weekly cases to tick up slightly and plateau, and for weekly death counts to slowly grow.
The model predicts the state will tally around 11,656 confirmed and probable deaths by Dec. 26. As of Wednesday, the state had tallied 10,824 confirmed and probable deaths.
The ensemble model, it should be noted, was slow to catch on to the current wave of cases and deaths, and researchers emphasize that the actual numbers could range higher or lower than their predictions.
Vespignani said there is always an important footnote to models, particularly ones that attempt to look farther into the future: Human behavior can be key to what the future will hold.
With a weather forecast, he said, “The winter storm will not care about the forecast. It will do its job.”
“For an epidemic, it’s different,” he said. When people are forewarned, they can take precautions to keep themselves from becoming infected, and the future that the forecast predicted can be avoided.
“The moment you project the next few weeks a drastic increase in cases, people will act,” he said. “Forecasts are a call to arms to change the trajectory of the epidemic.”
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.