Covid-19 death toll could double this winter to 439,000, new model projects

Denise Chow and Corky Siemaszko
·6 min read

Covid-19 could kill as many Americans this winter as the Germans and Japanese did during World War 2, a research outfit that the Trump administration once relied on warned Friday.

The death toll in the United States, currently at 244,250, could nearly double by March 1 to 438,971, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE) at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine forecasted in its latest projection.

Add Europe, which is in the midst of a second wave of infections, and the rest of the world, and the global death toll could reach a staggering 2.8 million by March 1, the IMHE projected.

“When you see that Europe is already up to 4,000-plus deaths a day, and it just keeps growing. We’re on a similar trajectory,” Dr. Christopher Murray, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington and director of the IHME, told NBC News. “We’re just about four weeks behind."

In other coronavirus news:

  • With President Donald Trump still refusing to concede the election, President-elect Joe Biden's team is developing its own plan to mass-distribute a potential Pfizer vaccine for Covid-19.

  • The White House and Capitol Hill are no closer to forging a new Covid-19 relief plan. And even if a deal is reached, it will be too late to save some 100,000 small businesses.

  • New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned parents that the surging Covid-19 rates in the city could force him to close the nation's largest public school system as early as Monday. "This is not something any parent wants to have to deal with but we should get ready and parents should have a plan for the rest of the month of November," de Blasio said on WNYC radio.

  • New Jersey has been chosen by the federal Department of Health to be one of the first states to receive a new rapid Covid-19 test that has been shown to produce results with 99 percent accuracy in about 20 minutes.

  • Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito said the pandemic "has resulted in previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty." But in his address to the conservative Federalist Society, Alito also said he was "not diminishing the severity of the virus' threat to public health" or saying anything about "whether any of these restrictions represent good public policy."

  • Puerto Rico's Gov. Wanda Vázquez said she would activate the National Guard to help enforce a curfew aimed at curbing a rise in Covid-19 cases. She is also closing the beaches again to everyone except those doing exercise.

  • More than 130 Secret Service officers assigned to the White House and the president when he travels have been ordered to isolate because they tested positive or were in contact with people who are infected, The Washington Post reported.

Coronavirus deaths in the U.S. had slowed compared to the rate of new infections in the summer and through fall, but Murray said he expects that will change in the coming months.

“Eventually deaths come up,” he said. “We see transmission first in younger people and then it spreads into older people and people with comorbidities. There’s a natural lag, which means deaths don’t start to tick up at the same rate, but then they do.”

January in America could be especially grim, the IMHE forecasted, echoing the warnings of Dr. Anthony Fauci and other top U.S. infectious disease experts who have repeatedly urged Americans to mask-up and be more vigilant about social distancing with the holiday season fast approaching.

The daily death rate from Covid-19, which rose to 910 last week, could hit 2,200-a-week by the middle of that month, the IMHE projected.

Murray said the IHME’s projection of more than 438,000 deaths by March could climb even higher if Americans are not diligent about wearing masks, exercising social distancing and avoiding large gatherings.

“It depends on what we do as citizens and what state governments do,” Murray said. “Our numbers are what we think will happen, but they can certainly be worse."

As of Friday, the U.S. led the world with more than 10.5 million cases and record numbers of new infections were being reported every day, while the Pfizer vaccine is still months away from being distributed.

The IMHE estimates about 12 percent of the U.S. population has already been infected, ranging from 1 percent of the population in Vermont to 24 percent in New Jersey.

Meanwhile, the daily death rate is greater than four per million in Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming, the IMHE reported.

The IMHE’s dire projections were released as Trump had less than 10 weeks left to his presidency and was preoccupied with overturning the results of an election that Joe Biden appears to have won and not focusing on the accelerating Covid-19 crisis.

In his first public remarks about the pandemic since the election, Trump once again repeated the false claim that the reason the U.S. has more cases is because it tests more than any other country. He also touted the development of the Pfizer vaccine and made the misleading claim that its quick turnover was the result of his administration's Operation Warp Speed.

"Millions of doses will soon be going out the door," Trump said.

Pfizer did agree to partner with the government to distribute the vaccine. But the company developed the drug on its own and was not part of Operation Warp Speed, which provided upfront funding to companies working on a vaccine.

The IMHE was criticized in the early days of the pandemic for providing overly optimistic projections that turned out to be wrong, but which Trump and his team nevertheless promoted as proof that they had the coronavirus spread under control.

But in September, the IMHE released a “best case” scenario that projected 257,286 to 327,775 Covid-19 fatalities by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, New York reported 5,401 new Covid-19 cases overnight, the biggest daily number since the spring when the Empire State was nation's pandemic hot spot. The state is imposing renewed restrictions on restaurants, gyms and family gatherings that were to go into effect Friday night.

"We are in the midst of a sea of COVID rising around us," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

A dozen states shattered their single-day records for new cases on Thursday, NBC News data showed. They were Colorado (5,197), Illinois (12,702), Indiana (6,591), Minnesota (7,225), New Hampshire (322), New Mexico (1,742), North Dakota (1,801), Ohio (7,101), South Dakota (2,020), Utah (3,919), Vermont (116) and Wisconsin (8,223).

Puerto Rico also set a new daily record for infections with 2,118, the data showed.