In recent models released by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), forecasts showed a precipitous drop in coronavirus cases and deaths from early February through the spring.
The models suggested a combination of vaccines and social distancing would win out going into the spring, finally giving public health officials the upper hand in the fight against the virus. But two new variants of the virus could slow the progress against the virus.
The updated projections on Thursday show that the decline in COVID-19 cases and deaths might be slower than expected.
Two weeks ago, the IHME projected the number of daily coronavirus deaths would be around 1,700 deaths per day by March 1. By April 1, the IHME projected 616 deaths per day, and by May 1, the last day the model extended to, the number was down to 202 deaths per day.
With the IHME’s latest model, it now projects 2,094 deaths per day by March 1, 1,321 deaths by April 1, and 972 deaths by May 1. Worse, if there is a rapid spread of the variant strains of the virus, the IHME projects 2,225 deaths by March 1, 1,720 deaths by April 1, and 1,541 deaths by May 1.
While a variant first discovered in the UK was discovered several weeks ago in the US, it is a variant from South Africa that is prompting the gravest concerns among public health officials. Public health officials in South Carolina reported two cases of the South Africa variant.
“What we’re seeing is sobering, and will require us to continue taking this pandemic very seriously,” said Christopher Murray, director of IHME. “Getting vaccines out quickly is essential, and masks are still one of the best tools we have to keep transmission low and avoid the worst possible outcome. People will need to continue taking precautions even once they are vaccinated, because of the potential for more contagious variants to spread.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, agrees that the South Africa variant is most concerning, especially given that the current vaccines might not remain as effective combating the variant. But he said there is a way to adjust the vaccine in order to make it more effective.
“Bottom line: We’re paying very close attention to it. There are alternative plans if we ever have to modify the vaccine. That’s not something that is a very onerous thing, we can do that given the platforms we have,” Fauci said during a White House briefing on Wednesday.
As part of the IHME's projection, an estimated 38% of Americans will be immune to the coronavirus by May 1.
Justin Boggs is a writer for the E.W. Scripps National Desk. Follow him on Twitter @jjboggs or on Facebook.