The US could see a brighter fall and winter as COVID-19 cases and deaths decline, a new model shows

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reopening covid nyc dining
Customers toast on the Eataly Flatiron Rooftop in New York City on April 15, 2021. Taylor Hill/Getty Images
  • A new model suggests the US's COVID-19 cases and deaths aren't likely to climb higher between now and March.

  • That means the US could expect a much rosier national picture this fall and winter.

  • But hospitals might still be strained in states with cold climates or low vaccination rates.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

The pandemic has thrown its share of curveballs, but a new model suggests that US COVID-19 cases aren't likely to climb any higher for the foreseeable future, and COVID-19 deaths should steadily decline.

That means, nationally speaking, the US could expect a much rosier picture this fall and winter.

A model from the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub, a consortium of researchers across the US, indicates that cases could plummet from their current average - around 127,000 per day - to roughly 9,000 daily cases by mid-March. The last time average daily cases dipped that low was in March 2020, the start of the pandemic. Dr. Anthony Fauci recently told Axios that the US needs to see fewer than 10,000 daily COVID-19 cases before the virus no longer poses a public-health threat.

The model also suggests that COVID-19 deaths could fall from around 2,000 per day to fewer than 60 per day by mid-March.

The model is an average of nine different projections. It assumes that young kids will get vaccinated at the same rate as teenagers once the vaccine is authorized for them, and that Delta will remain the most transmissible variant.

However, a forecast from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) anticipates that daily infections - including ones that aren't picked up by tests - could rise in November after a decline in October. Even so, the forecast still suggests that daily deaths could dip below 1,200 in January, assuming mask usage stays the same.

"Unless we have another, even more transmissible variant, we shouldn't expect any future surge to be as intense as this one," Jeffrey Morris, director of biostatistics at the University of Pennsylvania, recently told Insider.

Vaccines for young kids could help prevent a major winter surge

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A boy receives the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the Clalit Healthcare Services in the Israeli city of Holon on June 21. Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

Scientists previously anticipated that cold weather and increased indoor socializing over the holidays would drive up cases again. But even that probably won't lead to a dramatic winter surge like last year.

"Things are looking like maybe they'll go quiescent and we'll have a quieter winter," Jeffrey Shaman, director of the Climate and Health Program at Columbia University, told Insider.

One reason for hope is that the Food and Drug Administration might authorize Pfizer's COVID-19 shots for children ages 5 to 11 by the end of October. And Moderna's shot could be authorized for young children sometime this winter.

Experts are also comforted by Delta's behavior in other countries: The variant appears to tear through a population like wildfire, then fizzle out fairly quickly. That's likely because fewer people are susceptible to infection now than at any other point in the pandemic.

"It is very reasonable to expect fewer severe cases this upcoming winter compared to the previous
winter, and compared to our current situation, because we have higher immunity now due to vaccine and natural infections," Jorge Alfaro-Murillo, an associate research scientist at the Yale School of Public Health, said.

Finally, Delta still seems to be out-competing other variants, including ones that have the potential to circumvent vaccine protection. Delta currently represents around 99% of COVID-19 cases in the US, according to Scripps Research's Outbreak.info tracker.

"I do feel confident that in the next six months we're going to get our rates down and we're going to be able to have a season where we can gather indoors with other vaccinated people and feel normal, like we did in the summer," Ellen Eaton, an infectious-disease expert at The University of Alabama at Birmingham, said.

The US could still have a bumpy recovery, though

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A woman gets a COVID-19 test at the Utah County Health Department in Salt Lake City on November 20, 2020. George Frey/Getty Images

Even if COVID-19 cases continue to decline nationally, some areas will likely struggle with outbreaks over the winter. States with cold weather are particularly vulnerable, since people there spend more time indoors.

Many states also face an uphill battle in getting more shots into arms. In West Virginia and Wyoming, for instance, just 40% of residents are fully vaccinated - the least of any US state.

It will also take time before hospitals in poorly vaccinated states are no longer overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. The IHME model predicts that US hospitals could become increasingly strained in December, after a brief reprieve in the fall.

But the further out predictions get, the less certain they become.

"There are too many variables that can change during a pandemic to be able to give approximate forecasts more
than a month in advance," Alfaro-Murillo said.

Even the end of the pandemic, Shaman said, might be hard to recognize in real time.

"When can we start to put this behind us and it just becomes something that we deal with functionally, but we get society back to where we need it to be? I think the answer is we're not going to probably know that until it's in the rear view," he said.

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