Model weighs vaccines' initial impact on coronavirus deaths

Model weighs vaccines' initial impact on coronavirus deaths
Posted at 7:52 PM, Dec 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-05 15:37:22-05

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has been issuing frequent projections since March in an attempt to model the spread and impact of the coronavirus across the world.

The models have been used by the CDC and White House coronavirus task force in an effort to better understand the potential number of deaths the coronavirus could cause.

On Friday, the model added a new variable, one that could cause a steep decline of coronavirus deaths throughout the US. The IHME’s newest model, which predicts the number of coronavirus deaths in the US through the end of March, is now weighing the potential impact of vaccines on the virus.

For those hoping for an immediate drop in hospitalizations and deaths caused by the coronavirus as soon as vaccinations begin later this month might be disappointed. The IHME's model shows the initial batch of vaccinations will have a relatively muted effect on deaths and hospitalizations initially.

While by April 1, much of the general US population will likely not be fully vaccinated, many in the high-risk category should expect to vaccinated by then. How fast they get vaccinated will play a role in determining the number of coronavirus deaths in the US.

As of Friday evening, there have been over 278,000 coronavirus-related deaths reported throughout the US, per Johns Hopkins University data. Without any vaccines reaching Americans, the IHME’s model projects a total of 548,000 would die from the coronavirus through April 1, meaning 270,000 deaths between now and then.

If COVID-19 vaccines are distributed at expected levels, 9,000 lives would be saved by April 1, reducing the number of deaths between now and then to 261,000. But a rapid vaccine rollout – one that would vaccinate the high-risk population and begin to vaccinate the general population by the spring -- would result in 250,000 deaths between now and April 1.

“Mass scale-up of vaccination in 2021 means we have a path back to normal life, but there are still a few rough months ahead,” said Dr. Christopher Murray, IHME director. “We must be vigilant in protecting ourselves at least through April, when, as our projections indicate, vaccines will begin to have an impact.”

In the meantime, Murray says universal mask wearing and social distancing will save more lives than a potential vaccine in the next four months.

“Especially in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s crucial for governments to impose or re-impose mandates that limit gatherings and require masks. Where the winter surge is driving spikes in infections, there will be many people who can still become infected and possibly die before the vaccine is fully rolled out,” said Murray.

To see the IHME’s state-by-state projections for deaths, hospitalizations and cases, clickhere.