Arbitrary COVID-19 Control Measures Will Not Make Americans More Likely To ‘Hang in There’ Until Vaccines Are Available
As the surge in newly identified COVID-19 cases continues, state and local governments across the country are responding by imposing new restrictions on social and economic activity. With a few exceptions, the rules so far are not as sweeping as the lockdowns that all but a few states imposed last spring, when far fewer cases were reported but the number of daily deaths was twice as high. But now as then, many of the distinctions drawn by politicians make little scientific sense.
As of yesterday, according to Worldometer’s tallies, the seven-day average of newly confirmed infections in the United States was more than 152,000. That is more than four times the average on September 12, which was already slightly higher than last spring’s peak.
Since virus testing has expanded dramatically over the course of the epidemic, from fewer than 50,000 tests a day in early April to around 1.5 million a day recently, comparisons between the spring and fall are misleading. But the recent spike in daily new cases is clearly much larger than expanded testing can explain, and the percentage of tests that detect the coronavirus has more than doubled during the last month, from a seven-day average of 4 percent in mid-October to nearly 10 percent now.
Hospitalizations are also on the rise. According to the COVID Tracking Project, nearly 70,000 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in the United States yesterday, up from fewer than 29,000 on September 20. That is significantly higher than the previous peaks of about 60,000 seen in April and July.
Increases in COVID-19 fatalities so far have been less dramatic, even allowing for the typical lag between laboratory confirmation and death. As of yesterday, the seven-day average of daily deaths, per Worldometer, was 1,156, up 64 percent from the recent low on October 17.
The case fatality rate (deaths as a share of confirmed infections) has fallen from more than 6 percent in mid-May to 2.3 percent as of yesterday. In other words, COVID-19 patients, even when hospitalized, are much less likely to die from the disease today than was the case in the spring. That downward trend probably has been driven by several factors, including ramped-up testing that identifies milder cases, a younger and healthier mix of patients, and improved treatment.
What does all this mean for how many Americans ultimately will die from COVID-19 by the time effective vaccines are widely available? It seems clear that President-elect Joe Biden was excessively pessimistic when he predicted last month that we would see another 200,000 deaths, or a total of around 423,000, by the end of the year. The “ensemble forecast” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based on projections from “45 modeling groups,” puts the U.S. death toll at 260,000 to 282,000 by December 5. Based on the upper value from the CDC’s forecast, Biden’s projection implies a death toll of more than 5,400 a day during the last 26 days of December, which is 4.7 times the current average and 2.4 times the April peak.
By contrast, Anthony Fauci, director of the Na
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