The Winter Peak of the U.S. Covid-19 Pandemic Will Be Its Deadliest Yet

The Winter Peak of the U.S. Covid-19 Pandemic Will Be Its Deadliest Yet
A man walking through a memorial at the National Mall in Washington, DC, created this September to commemorate the 200,000 American lives lost to the pandemic at the time. As many as 500,000 Americans may die before the pandemic ends, some experts have estimated. (Photo: Win McNamee, Getty Images)

New modelling from the U.S. Centres for the Disease Control and Prevention paints a grim outlook for the near-term future of the covid-19 pandemic in the U.S., even as Americans are poised to receive the first doses of two highly effective vaccines soon. This week, the agency released projections that estimate the country will reach over 330,000 deaths directly attributed to the viral illness by January 2.

The updated estimates, released by the CDC on Wednesday, are pulled from analysing forecasts on the pandemic from 40 different modelers. In other words, they’re akin to an average of what other data scientists are predicting in the near future.

The numbers reflect the record-setting rise in covid-19 cases, hospitalisations, and deaths seen in recent days and weeks. On Wednesday and Thursday, for instance, more than 3,000 deaths were recorded by various trackers — the deadliest peak seen so far and a number larger than American lives lost during the September 11 terrorist attacks. Daily new cases continue to reach more than 200,000, while more than 100,000 people are currently hospitalised.

According to the CDC, deaths will likely only continue to increase over the next four weeks, with as many as 12,600 to 23,400 new deaths likely reported in the week ending Jan. 2, 2021 (a Saturday). They also estimate that a total of between 332,000 to 362,000 Americans will have been killed by the disease by that day. The numbers fit well with CDC director Robert Redfield’s comments made earlier this week.

“We are in the timeframe now that probably for the next 60 to 90 days we’re going to have more deaths per day than we had at 9/11 or we had at Pearl Harbour,” Redfield said Thursday during a virtual event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. Of course, Redfield himself has been accused of doing not enough to prevent the CDC from being silenced by others in the Trump administration who sought to downplay the pandemic.

The even more tragic backdrop to these deaths is that the U.S. will likely have not one, but two highly effective vaccines available to Americans by the month’s end. Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine is expected to be granted an emergency use authorisation by the Food and Drug Administration as early as Thursday evening, while Moderna’s similar mRNA candidate will be evaluated next week.

Despite their pending approval, there simply won’t be enough doses available for the U.S. population at large until late winter or early spring next year, thanks in part to the Trump administration reportedly turning down Pfizer’s offer earlier in the year to secure an additional 100 million doses. And all of this is contingent on Americans being willing to take these vaccines as they become available. Worldwide, experts are worried that many poorer countries will be largely shut out of the distribution of these initial doses.

The pandemic will eventually reach its end, but not without a steep cost paid in lives. According to Youyang Gu, a data scientist and especially accurate modeler during the pandemic, deaths may begin to drop dramatically as early as May next year assuming high vaccine uptake among high-risk groups of people, while herd immunity may be reached by early summer. Before then, though, the official U.S. death toll will likely reach somewhere around 500,000.