CDC estimates from one month ago predicted that between 200,000 and 1.7 million Americans could die, but canceling events can help reduce the number of deaths
Flatten the curve Covid 19 coronavirus
Flattening the Curve
| Credit: Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris

As the new coronavirus (COVID-19) spreads through the U.S., experts are trying to get a sense of how severely the respiratory illness will affect Americans. But one thing is clear: The best way to reduce the number of cases and deaths is to start social distancing and canceling large gatherings now, before it gets worse.

As of Friday morning, there are 1,663 cases of coronavirus in the U.S. — an increase of nearly 400 from the day before — and 41 people have died. Experts agree that the number of cases is likely much higher, and will soar in the next few weeks, but to what extent is in question.

One month ago, the Centers for Disease Control met with experts from around the world and came up with four possible scenarios for the U.S., The New York Times reported. Within those scenarios, between 160 million and 214 million people could be infected, 200,000 to 1.7 million people could die and 2.4 million to 21 million people could need to be hospitalized, which would strain the country’s medical system, which has around 925,000 staffed hospital beds.

Another estimation, from Professor James Lawler of the University of Nebraska Medical Center on behalf of the American Hospital Association, also last month, expects that hundreds of thousands of Americans could die from COVID-19, according to The Washington Post.

A third forecast, from former CDC director Tom Frieden at the nonprofit organization Resolve to Save Lives, looked at fatality ratios — 0.1 being on the low end, similar to the seasonal flu, 0.5 being a moderately severe outbreak and 1.0 as a severe one (and what researchers believe is the current fatality rate for COVID-19). Based on those ratios, he estimated that the number of deaths could be between 327 on the low end to 1,635,000 as a worst-case scenario, the Post reported.

However, it has been difficult for researchers to get a clear idea of the rate of disease spread and fatalities in the U.S. so far, due to the lack of available testing. The CDC and the Trump administration has struggled to properly equip medical centers with testing kits, and experts estimate that the number of cases is far higher than what is currently known.

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But states across the country are taking action to reduce the spread. Many have banned gatherings of more than 100 people, canceled schools, enforced quarantines and urged people to limit social activities in order to slow the spread — a strategy that epidemiologists call “flattening the curve.”

The idea is that by putting these protective measures in place, the disease will not be transmitted as quickly. The goal is to keep it low enough that hospitals and medical centers will not become overwhelmed by sick patients or unable to properly treat people for the coronavirus — which is what is playing out now in Italy, and what occurred in Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the virus, in February.

“The ideal goal in fighting an epidemic or pandemic is to completely halt the spread. But merely slowing it — mitigation — is critical,” Dr. Drew Harris, a population health analyst at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, told the Times. “This reduces the number of cases that are active at any given time, which in turn gives doctors, hospitals, police, schools and vaccine-manufacturers time to prepare and respond, without becoming overwhelmed.”

This is particularly important with the coronavirus, Harris said, because people do not have immunity the way they typically do with the flu.

“Far more people are vulnerable to coronavirus, so it has many more targets of opportunity to spread,” he said. “Keeping people apart in time and space with social distancing measures, self-isolation and actual quarantine decreases opportunities for transmission.”

And while COVID-19 has shown to be relatively mild for most — around 80 percent of people — it’s important that people reduce social interactions to limit the chance that they’ll spread the virus to at-risk populations: people over 60 and those with pre-existing conditions.