When will it peak? That’s been the question on everyone’s minds in Washington since flattening the coronavirus curve became old hat for us. Well, on Sunday night, a surprising conclusion arrived from a prominent local forecaster: It already did.
In its latest update to a model that has had the attention of the White House and states around the country, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine shifted its projection for peak use of hospital resources (beds, ventilators) in Washington from April 11 to April 2. As in, last Thursday. The new figures also lowered the total number of expected deaths in the state by August 4th from 978 to 632. (Today is supposed to have the highest daily number, at 18.) By early May, when our stay-at-home mandate is set to end, deaths could be down to one or two per day.
So, why did the model’s forecast change so much? In short, a massive influx of data locally and globally. According to IHME, its initial projections on March 26 were based on the only city that had seen its daily deaths peak by then: Wuhan City. Since then, seven more cities across Italy and Spain have had fatality counts plateau and then drop, providing more information about the time between social distancing measures’ implementation and when hospitals are most burdened. The model also now weighs various social distancing policies (for example, early school closures were more impactful than expected) more heavily than others. “Our projections are strengthened by the new downturns in more regions,” IHME director Dr. Christopher Murray said in a release. “This is evidence that social distancing is crucial.”
The significant change to not only Washington’s numbers but other states’, too, naturally raises questions about IHME’s methodology. It’s important to remember that any type of data model, but especially coronavirus-related ones, should not be viewed as gospel. After all, earlier on Sunday, the same model showed very different numbers. For that reason alone, the new findings should be viewed with some skepticism, with the understanding that forecasts should change based on the availability of new data.
But anecdotally, we have reason for hope. On Sunday, governor Jay Inslee also forked over 400 of the state’s 500 ventilators received from the Strategic National Stockpile to New York. Though the ventilators couldn't be used to treat patients with the virus anyway, they could have helped ease hospitals' burden elsewhere. It's a legitimate sign that we are in better shape than many. (Peak resource use in the U.S. is April 15, according to IHME.)
Regardless of whether IHME’s conclusion is accurate, this is not the time to let up on social distancing. "Our estimates assume statewide social distancing measures are continuing in states where they have already been enacted, and for those states without such measures in place, it is assumed they will be in place within seven days," says Murray. "If social distancing measures are relaxed or not implemented, the U.S. will see greater death tolls, the death peak will be later, the burden on hospitals will be much greater, and the economic costs will continue to grow."