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Health Experts: Coronavirus Death Models Flawed

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A leading forecasting model, IHME, used by the White House to chart the coronavirus pandemic is now predicting that the United States may need fewer hospital beds, ventilators and other equipment than previously projected and that some states may reach their peak of covid-19 deaths sooner than expected.

By Wednesday morning, the model had been revised even more dramatically downward. It now predicts a total of 60,400 U.S. deaths by August and forecasts the peak of those deaths arriving in just four days on April 12, instead of April 16 as previously projected. Experts, however, have noted that this particular model’s numbers and projections — while used widely — have been consistently lower than those of other models.

Some state leaders have also grown increasingly concerned about how the federal government is using IHME’s lower estimates to deny states’ increasingly desperate requests for equipment and help in preparations. The stark differences between the IHME model and dozens of others being created by states exposes the glaring lack of national models provided publicly by the White House or agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for local leaders to use in planning or preparation.

“It’s unclear exactly what the White House is doing on this front,” said Dylan George, who helped the Obama White House develop models to guide its Ebola response in 2014. “As a result, you have every state trying to create their own models to anticipate their needs. And you have one model like IHME being adopted as the national guide.”

In populous states a vast gap in planning and modeling could mean a life-or-death difference for tens of thousands of people.

In the two weeks since IHME’s model was originally released — the researchers announced revisions Monday — it has been criticized by some experts as overly optimistic. But even critics are quick to note that in the absence of any tool offered by the federal government and with no other model offering nationwide state-by-state estimates, IHME could be a lifesaver.

Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the IHME model embraces an entirely different statistical approach, taking the trending curve of deaths from China, and “fitting” that curve to emerging death data from U.S. cities and counties to predict what might come next.

At the White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing Monday, health officials said they thought it was possible to have fewer deaths than have been projected by models, because of the extreme social distancing efforts being undertaken by Americans.

“Models are good, they help us to make projections. But as you get data in, you modify your model,” said Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I don’t accept everyday we’re going to have to have 100,000 to 200,000 deaths. I think we can really bring that down.”

One concern from some experts is that the IHME model is being used too much like a crystal ball with undue weight given to its predicted needs for ventilators and hospital beds and staffing.

The newer version also found that deaths in some states — such as Florida, Virginia, Louisiana and West Virginia — could peak earlier than previous projections. But the deaths nationally were still projected to peak April 16. The newer model suggests the number of acute care hospital beds needed at the peak could be cut almost in half and the number of ICU beds needed at the peak of the surge could drop from 40,000 to 29,000. The model also suggested the total number of deaths would be lower, with an estimated 82,000 deaths from the first wave of infection, although the number could range from 49,000 to 136,000.