A sobering new statistical model presented to the White House predicts people sick with the coronavirus may overwhelm the U.S. health care system and as many 1.2 million may die without drastic actions that continue for months.
Recommended control measures — including social distancing of the entire population, isolating suspected cases, quarantining family members and possible school closings — would suppress the outbreak, the researchers projected. But many of those restrictions may have to remain in place until a vaccine is developed in perhaps 18 months ― severely limiting daily life for a far longer period of time than public officials have suggested.
“Epidemic suppression is the only viable strategy at the current time,” researchers from Britain’s Imperial College wrote in the study. “The social and economic effects of the measures which are needed to achieve this policy goal will be profound.”
The lead author, epidemiology professor Neil Ferguson, told The New York Times that the group shared the findings last week with the White House coronavirus task force. The study’s demonstration of the effectiveness of social distancing ― a policy that encourages people to keep their distance from others — was a catalyst for stricter new U.S. guidelines, according to Dr. Deborah Birx, a leader of the White House group.
The new recommendations were soberly announced Monday by President Donald Trump, whose previous approach to the crisis had been marked by flippancy and falsehoods. Those guidelines recommend Americans avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, cease unnecessary shopping trips and eating in restaurants, and work from home if possible.
Study researchers warned that less dramatic “mitigation” measures, as opposed to “suppression” tactics, would quickly overwhelm the health care system. Mitigation measures include isolating those who are sick, quarantining contacts and social distancing of elderly people or other vulnerable segments of the population — all for shorter periods of time than suppression measures would need to be in effect.
“In the most effective mitigation strategy examined ... the surge limits for both general ward and ICU (intensive care unit) beds would be exceeded by at least eight-fold,” the study stated. “Even if all patients were able to be treated, we predict there would still be in the order of 250,000 deaths” in Britain and 1.1 million to 1.2 million in the U.S.
In the “unlikely absence of any control measures” or changes in behavior, the U.S. death toll could reach 2.2 million, the study warned. In Britain, as many as 510,000 could die without action.
Ferguson said potential death rates among the most vulnerable — those over 80 years old — could be as high as 9% in people who are infected.
In both countries, “suppression will minimally require a combination of social distancing of the entire population, home isolation of cases and household quarantine of their family members,” the study said. “This may need to be supplemented by school and university closures.”
The controls would have to be maintained until a vaccine is available, otherwise “transmission will quickly rebound if interventions are relaxed,” it added.
Still, the researchers warned it’s “not at all certain that suppression will succeed long term; no public health intervention with such disruptive effects on society has been previously attempted for such a long duration of time. How populations and societies will respond remains unclear.”
In the U.S., some states have ordered the closing of schools, stores, bars and restaurants, and have called for the cancelation of large events ― but for limited periods of time. In what appears to be the strictest standards, six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area have called for people to “shelter in place” at home, with some exceptions, for at least three weeks.
There are no national requirements in either the U.S. or the U.K.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose government also received the new Imperial College research, on Monday issued warnings to significantly reduce social interactions to help stem the tide of COVID-19.
Johnson last week said he wouldn’t halt major sporting events. On Monday he urged everyone to stop non-essential contact or travel, to work from home, and avoid pubs and theaters.