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The current outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States – fueled by the highly contagious delta variant – will steadily accelerate through the summer and fall, peaking in mid-October, with daily deaths more than triple of what they are now.
That’s according to new projections released Wednesday by the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub, a consortium of researchers working in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help the agency track the progress of the pandemic.
It’s a demeaning prospect for parents considering the school year ahead, with employers planning to bring people back to the workplace and everyone hoping that the days of the big national pushes are over.
“What’s going on in the country with the virus fits our most pessimistic scenarios,” says Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina who helps run the modeling center. “We could see synergistic effects of people becoming less cautious in addition to the impacts of the delta variant.
“I think this is a big call for caution,” he adds.
The group’s latest projections combine ten different mathematical models from various academic teams to create an “overall” projection. He offers four scenarios for his projections – varying depending on the percentage of the population vaccinated and the speed at which the delta variant spreads.
In the most likely scenario, Lessler says, the United States only achieves 70% immunization among eligible Americans, and the delta variant is 60% more transmissible.
In that scenario, at the peak in mid-October, there would be about 60,000 cases and about 850 deaths each day, Lessler says.
Each scenario also includes a range of severity of things – the worst end of the range for the most likely scenario shows that around 240,000 people are infected and 4,000 people die each day at the peak of October, which would be almost as much. serious like last winter.
Lessler notes that there is a lot of uncertainty in these projections, and how things actually go depends on many factors, including whether the vaccination campaign accelerates and whether other mitigation measures are put in place.
“Behavioral changes that we hadn’t predicted and big changes in vaccination could change these results a lot,” Lessler said.
But overall, the main projection shows a steady slope up until the October peak, and then a steady slope down.
“By the time you arrive in October, these resurgent epidemics have burned a lot of sensitive people,” Lessler explains.
At this point, “herd immunity starts to kick in a bit more aggressively and we start to see it fall back.” By January 2022, the model shows deaths would drop to around 300 per day.
The take-home message from the latter model is that the pandemic is not yet over and “we will not be able to land the plane without turbulence,” says William Hanage, epidemiologist at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. “How much turmoil will follow with the number of people vaccinated in a given community.”
“I also strongly suspect that Delta is very prone to over-spread – if I’m right, it could explode like a bomb in some under-vaccinated communities,” Hanage adds.
Public policy and behavior could still push the dial to softer results, Lessler says.
“I think states maybe should rethink how quickly they are removing mask warrants or social distancing,” Lessler said. “This is something that – if you want to keep cases under control – would definitely have an impact.”
These measures should come from state or local leaders. Despite calls for the CDC to issue new mask guidelines, in a briefing Thursday, CDC director Rochelle Walensky once again stood firm.
She stressed that the guidelines have always said that unvaccinated people should wear masks indoors. She added that even vaccinated people could also wear masks indoors if they want extra protection, especially in places where the virus is thriving and there are a lot of unvaccinated people. But his main message was the same: get vaccinated.
With that, Lessler agrees. “If we got enough people vaccinated, we could even stop the delta variant in its tracks,” he says.