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US projects summer spike in infections if stay-at-home orders are lifted

Stay-at-home orders, school closures and social distancing greatly reduce infections of the coronavirus, but lifting those restrictions after just 30 days will lead to a dramatic infection spike this summer and death tolls that would rival doing nothing, government projections indicate.

The projections obtained by The New York Times come from the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. The models use three scenarios. The first has policymakers doing nothing to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The second, labeled “steady state,” assumes schools remain closed until summer, 25% of Americans telework from home, and some social distancing continues. The third scenario includes a 30-day shelter in place, on top of those “steady state” restrictions.

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The documents, dated April 9, contain no dates for when shelter-in-place orders were delivered nor do they contain specific dates for when spikes would hit. The risk they show of easing shelter-in-place orders currently in effect in most of the country undercut recent statements by President Donald Trump that the United States could be ready to reopen “very, very soon.”

The model foresees a bump in the demand for ventilators — considered a stand-in for serious COVID-19 infection rates — 30 days after stay-at-home orders are issued, a major spike in infections about 100 days after, and peaking 150 days after the initial order. (Assuming further shelter-in-place policies are not implemented to reduce future peaks.)

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For most states that implemented stay-at-home orders in late March, including New York City, Massachusetts and Illinois, that spike would come in mid- to late summer.

The government’s conclusions are sobering. Without any mitigation, such as school closings, shelter-in-place orders, telework and socially distancing, the death toll from the coronavirus could have reached 300,000. But if the administration lifts the 30-day stay-at-home orders, the death total is estimated to reach 200,000, even if schools remain closed until summer, 25% of the country continues to work from home and some social distancing continues.

If nothing was done, infection rates would top out at 195 million Americans, and 965,000 people would require hospitalization in an intensive care unit, according to the projections’ “best guess.” But with a 30-day shelter in place and other measures, infections would still reach 160 million and 740,000 would need intensive care.

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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