SEATTLE, Wash. — The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) says its new COVID-19 forecasts show the possibility of a spike in coronavirus deaths in the spring if the emerging variants spread widely.
In a worst-case scenario, with widespread transmission of the variant first detected in South Africa and mobility returning to pre-pandemic levels in the vaccinated, the IHME predicts the US could see about 654,000 total deaths by May 1.
In that case, the IHME also says some states could see a resurgence of the virus in the spring, including California and Florida, rather than a continued decline.
Officials say keeping mobility low and maintaining social distancing could reduce the number of deaths by about 30,000.
The variant from South Africa, B.1.351, was first reported in the U.S. this week, with two cases in South Carolina. Two other variants, one first seen in the U.K. and the other in Brazil, have also both made it to the U.S.
“What we’re seeing is sobering and will require us to continue taking this pandemic very seriously,” said Christopher Murray, director of the 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.”
The IHME says herd immunity is unlikely to be a factor in slowing transmission in the coming months, even with vaccination campaigns ramping up. Officials say higher levels of immunity are needed with a more contagious variant and during the winter months, and vaccine hesitancy is an obstacle to achieving herd immunity.
In the U.S., the IHME says about 25% of people have indicated they would reject a vaccine and another 25% are unsure. Their forecasts predict only 38% of people in the U.S. will be immune by May 1.
In a worst-case scenario, the IHME says there is also the possibility of a third wave next winter.
“Governments and the public need to plan for the real prospect that COVID-19 must be managed on an ongoing basis,” Murray said. “It’s critical to vaccinate as many people as possible and to prepare for long-term behavior change. It’s likely that wearing masks and taking other measures to prevent transmission, especially in the winter months, will become an ongoing part of our lives.”
The IHME says its projections are based on an epidemiological model that includes data on cases, deaths and antibody prevalence, as well as location-specific COVID-19 testing rates, vaccination rollout, mobility, social distancing mandates, mask use, population density and age structure, and pneumonia seasonality, which shows a strong correlation with the trajectory of COVID-19.