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White House-favored model raises coronavirus death estimate to more than 74,000

A prominent model used by the White House to predict the trajectory of the coronavirus outbreak on Monday revised its estimated death toll sharply upward, and is now projecting the disease could result in more than 74,000 fatalities across the United States by early August.

The model, produced by researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and frequently referenced by top administration officials, modified its forecast to a projected 74,073 deaths in the U.S. by August 4 — with an estimate range of 56,563 to 130,666.

Because the forecast cuts off before the fall, when many epidemiologists anticipate a second wave of the outbreak to hit the U.S., even that revised projection could be a gross underestimate of the coronavirus’ ultimate death toll.

The previous update to the model, published last Wednesday, had projected 67,641 deaths, with an estimate range of 48,058 to 123,157.

The IHME said the increase Monday was attributable in part to “many states experiencing flatter and thus longer epidemic peaks,” as well as data showing that daily coronavirus deaths “are not falling very quickly after the peak, leading to longer tails for many states’ epidemic curves.”

“In combination — less abrupt peaks and slower declines in daily COVID-19 deaths following the peak — many places in the U.S. could have higher cumulative deaths from the novel coronavirus,” the IHME concluded.

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President Donald Trump on Monday also altered his own appraisal of the likely U.S. death toll, acknowledging more Americans would perish than he had recently predicted.

“So, yeah, we’ve lost a lot of people. But if you look at what original projections were, 2.2 million, we are probably heading to 60,000 to 70,000,” he told reporters at a White House coronavirus news conference.

In an effort to promote his administration’s response to the public health crisis, the president had previously seized upon earlier, less dire estimates provided by the IHME model — touting last week its projection that the coronavirus would kill as few as 60,000 Americans.

“It looks like we’ll be at about a 60,000 mark, which is 40,000 less than the lowest number thought of,” Trump said during a briefing on April 19, adding the next day that “the low number was supposed to be 100,000 people. We could end up at 50 to 60.”

But more than 56,000 Americans have already died as a result of the coronavirus as of Tuesday morning, and the total number of confirmed cases in the U.S. has surged beyond 988,000.

Experts agree the actual number of those infected is likely much greater because of limited testing capacity.

The number of deaths attributed to the coronavirus may also ultimately be higher, due to discrepancies in the way hospitals and health officials tabulate their data, as well as the likelihood that many excess deaths in homes and other places were caused by the disease.

The IHME model, though widely cited, has come under criticism from some epidemiologists for relying on mathematical formulas rather than the inherent properties of the disease.

Its defenders say the model has accurately predicted the peak of the outbreak in the U.S., while emphasizing the uncertainty of attempting to project a phenomenon as complicated as a global pandemic.

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