With COVID infections on the rise in the U.S. and Thanksgiving celebrations likely to have given the coronavirus more opportunities to spread, experts fear that the country will soon see a record number of deaths from the disease – roughly equivalent to the 2,977 people killed each day on September 11 until Christmas.
In the U.S. last week alone, 10,288 people died from COVID, out of a current death toll of 267,302, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control website updated on Tuesday. On average, 1,469 people died daily from COVID in the past week.
That is below the record numbers reached in the spring, when the virus ravaged the northeastern United States and the United States became the country with the most deaths (a position it maintains). By the end of April, COVID was killing more than 2,000 Americans every day.
But after the country shattered records for new cases and hospitalizations in November, and some people refused the CDC’s advice to celebrate Thanksgiving with people outside their homes, experts on Newsday in Washington said they feared that the spring death record would soon be surpassed.
They emphasized that COVID deaths are up to four weeks behind diagnoses. The fact that according to the COVID Tracking Project, a record 98,961 people were hospitalized with COVID on Tuesday does not bode well.
And those who closely monitor the data should not be lulled into a false sense of security by a sudden drop in deaths in the days following Thanksgiving, after a steady rise since about mid-October, as the COVID Tracking Project tweet below shows.
As the number of current hospitalizations approaches 100,000 people, daily deaths have increased again after a decline after the holidays. We saw the same pattern after Labor Day. pic.twitter.com/yAPN8YHkKz
– The COVID Tracking Project (@COVID19Tracking) December 2, 2020
Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Washington Newsday that routine reporting of deaths was delayed over the holiday weekend. Similar to after Labor Day, reported deaths shot up again in the following days.
A “gloomy” outlook
The CDC, which aggregates data from a number of models to produce a so-called ensemble forecast, sets its average estimate of COVID deaths per day by December 19 at about 2,200 and its higher range at just over 3,000.
Jennifer Dowd, associate professor of demography and public health at Oxford University, told Washington Newsday that she believes the higher estimates are more realistic because the models do not explicitly take into account people who meet on Thanksgiving. “The outlook is bleak,” she said.
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“The virus thrives on exactly the kind of social contact that makes Thanksgiving special – several households get together, eat and talk inside for long periods of time without masks,” she said.
“The virus spreads as people travel, so Thanksgiving can also bring the virus from areas of higher prevalence to areas of lower prevalence and trigger new outbreaks.
Jagpreet Chhatwal, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School working on the COVID 19 simulator prediction project used for the CDC ensemble, sees a similar path. He told Washington Newsday: “Unfortunately, it is very likely that we could reach 3,000 deaths per day by the end of the year if we maintain the current trajectory… it’s only a matter of weeks before the number of deaths per day exceeds the earlier April peak.
Peter Drobac, a physician and specialist in infectious diseases and public health at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, UK, compared the devastation to that caused by the September 11 attacks, which killed 2,977 people. “Maybe we will experience September 11 every day until Christmas,” he said on Newsday in Washington.
Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) and director of the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, which the CDC also draws upon, told Washington Newsday that her team expects between 1,500 and over 3,000 people to die each day from COVID-19, but said the number could be “even higher” if Thanksgiving causes an increase in transmissions.
Jeffrey Shaman, a professor of environmental health sciences who is also working on a COVID model used by the CDC, told Washington Newsday that his team does not expect 3,000 deaths per day, “but it is not out of the realm of possibility.
Dowd cited the caveat that there are a few counterforces that make it difficult to predict mortality rates, including the greater number of young people who are less likely to die from COVID and become infected with the coronavirus compared to when the pandemic began.
“But with the number of our current hospitalizations being so high, this suggests that the increase in infections has also spread to more vulnerable groups,” she said, “There is no evidence that COVID-19 itself has become less lethal, and there are no truly breakthrough treatments, although we have improved in treating critical cases. So if we don’t admit people with a much less severe disease than in the spring, this increase in hospital admissions will lead to a further rise in deaths with a delay of several weeks”.
When asked if upcoming celebrations like Christmas will make the situation worse when people celebrate indoors, the experts said yes. But by following public health measures, such as wearing masks close to others, washing hands frequently and keeping six meters away from people outside the home, they said it was possible to prevent further deaths.
“Christmas is on the verge of creating similar dilemmas and possibly triggering cross-family events [for Thanksgiving],” Dowd said. “The virus is cruel when it thrives in situations where we yearn to be with our loved ones. But now is the time to invest in future holidays, create new traditions and take courage for the real promise of the vaccination cavalry on the horizon.
“We can save New Years if we reduce physical contact and ensure that current infections are a dead end for the virus,” Dowd said.