Doctor warns there could be 100,000 more American COVID-19 deaths by Labor Day, but models vary widely

Emory University experts said current reopenings will be the deciding factor.

May 29, 2020, 6:01 PM

Infectious disease experts from the Emory University School of Medicine are warning that given the current rate of deaths per day, it is possible the U.S. death toll from the novel coronavirus could double by September as restrictions are lifted throughout the summer, and Americans begin to congregate again.

"Yesterday we passed over 100,000 deaths in this country. We are currently at a rate of about 1,500 deaths per day in the U.S. That means that by Labor Day, there will be another hundred thousand deaths in our country. That is a very sobering number," said Dr. Carlos del Rio, a professor of medicine and global health at Emory, during a virtual video briefing conducted on Thursday, as he urged people to be careful and practice social distancing.

In May, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, there were between approximately 500 and 2,000 coronavirus-related deaths every day in the United States. However, coronavirus projection models vary widely.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predict that although the rate of increase in cumulative COVID-19 deaths is continuing to decline, the total number of COVID-19 deaths is likely to exceed 115,000 by June 20.

However, a model created by Youyang Gu, an independent data scientist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who founded, forecasts the U.S. is likely to surpass 175,000 deaths by Aug. 8.

In another study, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, an independent global health research center at the University of Washington, has projected that the U.S. death toll will exceed 132,000 deaths by Aug. 4, but the upper limit of the organization's projection also suggests there is a possibility the U.S. could hit 173,000 by the same date.

"It is without a doubt that unfortunately more Americans will die through the Summer," Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University, and director of the Global Health Initiative at the Mailman School of Public Health, told ABC News. "It is inevitable that we will continue to see new infections with deaths amongst the most vulnerable populations, the elderly, the poor, African Americans, Latinx, those with other serious conditions."

A man and woman sit with their masks on at Creve Coeur Lake Park on May 25, 2020 in Maryland Heights, Missouri.
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However, she cautioned that she thinks it is still premature to estimate the number of Americans who will lose their lives to the virus by the fall.

"It is very difficult to make projections that far in advance, particularly as the U.S. is now going through a moment of high uncertainty in terms of the trajectory of the epidemic," El-Sadr told ABC News. "The next few weeks will be critical as more and more communities and states are easing mitigation measures and opening up businesses and activities. What happens next is dependent on what we are doing today in terms of easing of restrictions as well as our willingness to put back restrictions in the event that we see a blip in the number of cases. Right now is a critical time point. What we see in the next few weeks will be critical and how we act and react in the next few weeks will be equally critical."

During the Emory University briefing, del Rio, who was joined by his colleague, Dr. Colleen Kraft, an associate professor in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine and the director of the Clinical Virology Research Laboratory, discussed the current state of the coronavirus pandemic in Georgia, and across the country.

Both specialists stressed that the pandemic is far from over, despite the fact that the rates of infections and deaths are not as high as they could have been if measures such as social distancing, lockdowns and the shutdown of the economy had not been instituted.

Del Rio said that it was a mistake to think of the pandemic in terms of a curve, with a peak and a gradual descent.

"I think what we're beginning to see in the U.S. is a certain stabilization and plateauing in the number of cases," as well as in the number of deaths, he said.

Given the severe economic consequences of the pandemic, for states to reopen safely, he said it's important to track the number of deaths, the rate of hospitalizations and intensive care unit capacity.

A sign placed on the boardwalk states "MAINTAIN SOCIAL DISTANCE," May 24, 2020, in Wildwood, New Jersey.
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Del Rio said it is essential, both at the state level and at the national level, to determine who is getting infected in order to isolate these individuals and stop the outbreak.

"I think we're going to see little outbreaks, but the idea is to make sure that those outbreaks don't become large outbreaks, and we can contain them so you can actually limit the spread of infection," del Rio said. "Because obviously as you're opening up the economy, you will have cases, there's no doubt."

All eyes have been on Georgia, one of the first states to aggressively move to resume economic operations.

There, Gov. Brian Kemp opted to lift many stay-at-home restrictions on businesses across the state on April 27. Gyms, barbers, hair and nail salons, theaters, bowling alleys and private social clubs were among the businesses allowed to reopen.

Although Georgia is still seeing an increase in positive coronavirus cases, and has experienced a few single-day spikes, the number of new cases has remained relatively steady over the past month. There is, however, a slight uptick in the seven-day moving average of the number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Georgia has more than 45,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, and nearly 2,000 deaths statewide, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Kraft said that even though the number of cases has decreased, with schools and colleges reopening in the fall, and people getting back together, it is imperative to trust "our sources of truths," like the CDC and the Georgia Department of Health.

The reopening process, Kraft said, has been "stuttering," because "most" residents remain apprehensive about a return to normal activities, but believes the country will begin to see the implications of reopening in the next month due to the busy Memorial Day weekend.

Medical staff move bodies from the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center to a refrigerated truck, on April 2, 2020, in Brooklyn, New York.
Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

"I think it's safe to say that we're going to have a continued increase in cases in the U.S., whether it's Memorial Day weekend, or just the fact that we are reopening. I think it's really going to be a matter of individual choices," del Rio said. "If you have a lot of people out, with a lot of contact, you're going to see a lot of cases, and if you have less people with less contact, you're going to have less number of cases, so I really think it's going to be a lot about individual behaviors and less about policies."

Further he said, "Science is going to be critical to get us out of this mess."

Kraft said despite many people's desire to move around with less restrictions, it is important to remember that there may be people around you who are asymptomatic.

"We're now moving into the stage where we're climbing our way out of it, but we're in a plateau, which could easily become a surge," Kraft added.

People should also decide how large they want their "coronavirus circle" to be, that is, the number of family, friends and colleagues they associate with, Kraft said. She also stressed the importance of using protective measures to shield those who are medically vulnerable until there is a sure vaccine and very good therapeutics. "Keep yourself safe so you can keep your circle safe," she said.

Del Rio concluded with a warning to Americans to still take the pandemic seriously.

"This pandemic is not over," he said. "Just because a politician is saying it's safe to get out or we want to reactivate the economy. Take care of yourselves, practice social distance. Be careful. These are not normal times. I don't want to see you become a statistic."

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