Forecast that correctly predicted summer surge suggests the number of Americans who have tested positive for coronavirus could reach 20 million.
ST. LOUIS, Mo. — As the United States continues to deal with the spread of COVID-19 and the fallout of a contentious election, a new study warns the pandemic may reach devastating levels before a new administration takes office. Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis say their models show coronavirus cases may reach 20 million before the inauguration of Joe Biden in 2021.
While the President-elect has pledged to focus on curbing COVID-19’s spread, including a possible new nationwide lockdown, those plans won’t come for at least two more months. The study finds several factors between Thanksgiving and late-January 2021 are signaling virus cases will double during the holidays.
“One of the key reasons for the increased accuracy of this model over other COVID-19 forecasts is that this model accounts for the fact that people live in interconnected social networks rather than interacting mostly with random groups of strangers,” researcher and professor of marketing Raphael Thomadsen says in a university release. “This allows the model to forecast that growth will not continue at exponential rates for long periods of time, as classic COVID-19 forecasts predict.”
The team adds their model has already correctly forecasted the spike of COVID cases during the summer months.
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In an interactive university model, the St. Louis researchers display how the pandemic will likely change depending on the level of social distancing measures taken by the public. Currently, Thomadsen says social distancing policies around the U.S. reflect a 60-percent return to normalcy. Study authors define “normalcy” as the country’s behavior prior to the pandemic. Under current safety precautions, researchers say infection rates will skyrocket by around eight million cases by the end of January.
“Even small increases in social distancing can have a large effect on the number of cases we observe in the next two and a half months,” Thomadsen contends. “Going back to a 50% return to normalcy, which was the average level of distancing in early August, would likely result in 5 million fewer cases by the end of January. We could effectively squash out the COVID growth within a few weeks if we went back to the levels of social distancing we experienced in April.”
Unfortunately, the team warns their new estimate is likely on the low end of possible outcomes. The main reason for this is the increase in coronavirus testing and spikes in travel expected during the holidays.
“In our model, we assume that only 10% of cases are ever diagnosed, meaning that we will start to hit saturation,” explains study co-author Song Yao, an associate professor of marketing. “However, more recently, testing has increased, and probably more like 25% of cases are diagnosed. In that case, total COVID cases would increase beyond 20 million in the next few months unless we, as a society, engage in more social distancing.”
“The upcoming holiday seasons will present a great deal of uncertainty to the outlook of the pandemic as people travel more at the end of the year. This will likely make our forecast an optimistic one,” adds co-author Meng Liu.
The study appears in the journal Scientific Reports.