Mass graves in New York City. BBC video screenshot.

Documents from the Department of Health and Human Services show that earlier this month, HHS estimated that if all social distancing and other mitigation efforts were suddenly ended, the agency's "best guess" model predicted a resurgence of COVID-19 infections would claim over 300,000 lives in the US. And that's using a morbidity estimate that's far below what experts think is accurate. The HHS documents were obtained by the investigative journalism nonprofit the Center for Public Integrity, which co-published the story with NPR.

The story notes that this is the first look we've had at the government's own modeling for how the pandemic might play out:

While the White House's coronavirus task force has cited other models created at academic institutions, the federal government has not made public its own modeling efforts. The documents paint the fullest picture yet of the assumptions underpinning the government's response to the pandemic.

That last line strikes us as a bit of a reach. These documents may reflect what the data boffins at HHS are working on, but we have little confidence any of it makes its way into Donald Trump's brain, because are the HHS scientists on Fox News? They are not. So make that "part of the government's response, subject to being completely ignored," and we'll call it Factcheck True.


The HHS studies

outline a possible range of scenarios for how bad the coronavirus crisis could get, without taking into account continued efforts to tamp it down. This type of model offers a baseline against which to weigh mitigation efforts. The documents say they don't aim to predict the exact course of the pandemic, but rather to help government officials plan.

Remember, the numbers aren't aimed at "warning" what would happen if all public health measures were suddenly withdrawn, but if you want to read them as a suggestion that backing off too soon would be a bad thing, that's also reasonable. NPR and the Center for Public Integrity put together a handy summary of the study's "best guess" scenario and the four other models: two less severe, two worse. (You may need to view it in a separate tab to see it full size, or look at it on the NPR page).


That "best guess" scenario assumes that, without any more mitigation measures, the rate of infection and deaths would double roughly every five and a half days, that each infected person would spread COVID-19 to 2.5 other people, and that 0.5 percent of those who develop symptoms would die.

Except, oopsies, four of the seven independent experts interviewed by Public Integrity said nah, the HHS assumptions are entirely too cheery, like for instance the fatality rate:

"Their model's way too optimistic," says Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. He says the government was low-balling the fatality rate and failed to account for overruns of hospital resources. "They're getting their analysis wrong."

Some said the government's calculations were unsophisticated.

"This is just what a rookie would do," says Juan GutiƩrrez, a mathematician who produces coronavirus models for the city of San Antonio. He says the government had underestimated how contagious infected people without symptoms are and that the documents begin by assuming numbers that should really instead be proven by calculations.

Other experts said the numbers looked OK to them, and noted that HHS modelers know what they're doing. There always was that one out of five dentists who wouldn't recommend Trident gum.

One version of the documents, from early April, projected

roughly a third of Americans could be infected and show symptoms and more than 300,000 could die over the duration of the pandemic if social distancing and other mitigation measures were to stop immediately. That is far below earlier estimates of 2.2 million deaths predicted by the influential Imperial College model and the 1.5 million to 2.2 million predicted by the White House had the virus gone unchecked.

The estimated 300,000 cases without social distancing "would assume a very optimistic case fatality rate," Jha says. "That's not where the best estimates are today."

A more recent revision of the "best guess" table upped the fatality rate for people showing symptoms, from .25 percent to .5 percent, and also assumed a larger percentage of patients would need hospitalization, and that they'd need to stay in hospitals for a longer time than in the earlier projection. That updated version didn't present a new, higher total number of deaths, but the intrepid reporters calculated that if the death rate doubled, that works out to a "best guess" death rate of 600,000 if all mitigation ended. And yes, some of the experts still considered the revised estimate too rosy, particularly given hospitalization rates that have already been reported in China and Italy.

Again, these documents were intended as a baseline estimate of what might happen if all mitigation immediately ended everywhere, which, thankfully, remains only a rightwing pipe dream. Mind you, the models don't look at how we'd suddenly be prosperous again if we let all those people die, because there'd surely be no economic costs to a resurgence of the virus. The HHS study, by design, also doesn't address how continued mitigation would affect the spread of the disease, the story notes.

But a separate federal planning document obtained by Public Integrity, which used parameters similar to those in the "best guess" scenario, surmised that shelter-in-place orders would cut transmission of the virus by 75%.

Also too, at least one of the experts the reporters consulted said the government ought to be doing all of this out in the open, seeing as how that's how government worked in the Before Times:

"There are certain errors that can be made, and if no one's paying attention they go unnoticed," GutiƩrrez says. "Epidemiological modeling needs to happen in the open. Usually you put a lid on the garbage."

That seems a little unfair, however, since the Trump administration's default assumption is that no information should ever be released, because agencies like HHS are part of the Deep State and are out to get the Dear Leader. Isn't that a more reassuring take?

[NPR/Center for Public Integrity]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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