An influential forecast from researchers at the University of Washington predicts that many more Americans will die from covid-19 in the months ahead. They forecast that around 100,000 people in the U.S. will die from the pandemic between now and the start of December 2021. Yet they also argue that widespread mask use could curb those deaths by nearly half.
The numbers come from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), one of the longest-running forecasters during the pandemic, as part of their latest briefing released on August 25. In their most likely scenario, they estimate that the current peak of the pandemic will reach its height by early to mid-September in reported cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. These metrics will only gradually decline from there, and by December 1 their model calculates that there will be 739,000 total reported covid-19 deaths in the U.S.—just over 100,000 more than the current official toll. In terms of excess deaths, the IHME projects there will be more than 1.15 million by then (excess deaths largely include deaths directly caused by covid-19 but can represent other deaths indirectly tied to the pandemic as well).
These are of course just projections, and there is room for variance, depending on many factors related to the pandemic’s spread and our response to it. One factor that the IHME heavily takes into account for their estimates is mask usage. In their best-case scenario, where universal mask coverage (around 95%) is achieved in the next week, they estimate that would lead to roughly 50,000 fewer deaths by December 1. In a worst-case scenario, where the peak continues to grow and doesn’t slow down until early October, they project 812,000 total reported deaths by December 1, or around 72,000 more than their baseline forecast.
“We can save 50,000 lives simply by wearing masks. That’s how important behaviors are,” Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington and IHME researcher, told the AP.
The recent surge of cases in the U.S., aided by the more transmissible and possibly more virulent Delta variant, has led to far more hospitalizations and deaths than similar surges seen in other highly vaccinated countries such as the UK. Currently, the U.S. is once again reporting more than 1,000 deaths a day, while more than 100,000 Americans are hospitalized. A large part of this difference may come down to total vaccine coverage.
While more people are getting vaccinated in recent weeks, the overall rate in the U.S. remains below many other highly vaccinated countries, with 52% of Americans fully vaccinated. And despite some concerns about the waning effectiveness of vaccines over time or in relation to Delta, the bulk of hospitalizations and deaths continue to involve the unvaccinated. The high level of community spread has also meant that children are experiencing the highest levels of hospitalization reported during the entire pandemic, though their overall risk of severe illness from covid-19 continues to be much lower than for adults.
Assuming these projected numbers turn out to be relatively accurate, they will cement several bleak aspects of the pandemic in the U.S. this year. It’s now looking likely that more Americans will officially die of covid-19 in 2021 than did in 2020 (by December 31, 2020, there had been around 350,000 reported deaths). More Americans will have also died during a time when highly effective vaccines were available than before it, with the first vaccines reaching the public by mid-December last year. At the same time, these vaccines have probably saved more than 140,000 Americans already and counting, according to one estimate.