As US states loosen COVID-19 restrictions, projections raise toll sharply

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NEW YORK: With about half of the 50 US states beginning to relax the COVID-19 restrictions without fully meeting the criteria for it, new models of the pandemic’s deadly force say a sharply higher death toll is possible.

A day after President Donald Trump acknowledged that 100,000 deaths, about double the prediction he made last month, was possible, a model that his administration has cited projected on Monday that 134,000 could die due to the pandemic.

Another controversial projection under preparation laid out the possibility that by June 1, there could be 200,000 new cases with 3,000 deaths every day. Confirmed cases in the US has reached 1,180,634 with 68,934 deaths, according to the tally maintained by the Johns Hopkins University. The social distancing guidelines issued by the Trump administration expired at the end of last month, although the White House Coronavirus Task Force urges people to continue taking the precautions.

Virtually all of the loosening of the social distancing restrictions, from allowing some non-essential retailers to open to permitting restaurants and hair salons to operate, are taking place without meeting the three-step criteria announced by the task force that includes a downward trajectory of confirmed cases and the adequate availability of testing and spare critical care facilities.

Trump, who has been saying that the economy should reopen and has sounded sympathetic to anti-restriction protesters, has himself criticised Georgia State for moving too far and too soon.

But states like New York and New Jersey are holding on to restrictions. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced on Monday that the state’s schools will remain closed for the rest of the academic year. The projections of higher rates of infections and deaths are based on outcomes of the rush by many states to reopen. With the unemployment rate at 16 per cent and 30 million people without jobs, Governors and local leaders are caught between protests across the country demanding the reopening of the economy and the cautions from health officials against lifting restrictions and risking a COVID-19 flareups.

Speaking at a televised town hall meeting at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Trump acknowledged: “We’re going to lose anywhere from 75, 80 to 100,000 people. “That’s a horrible thing. We shouldn’t lose one person over this.” He said that without the steps taken by him, the deaths could have been as high as five million.

He also said that COVID-19 could flare up after it was doused and “we may have to put out a fire”. The number of new cases have plateaued between about 24,000 and 30,000 per day, while coming down in some hot spots like New York, the epicentre of the pandemic in the US.

Public health experts fear that the flareups due to the easing of restrictions could happen in places that have so far escaped the worst of it. Christopher Murray, the director of University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE), attributed the increase from the earlier projection of 72,000 death to 134,00 to the “premature relaxation of social distancing” in some states.

The Trump administration has relied on the IMHE projections. Murray disputed the projections in another study underway that predict 3,000 deaths per day by June. Those projections were in slide projections with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) logo that were leaked to The Washington Post and posted on its site.

The administration said that the report “is not a White House document nor has it been presented to the Coronavirus Task Force or gone through interagency vetting. This data is not reflective of any of the modelling done by the task force or data that the task force has analyzed”. A CDC spokesperson denied that the agency had issued the projections.

Murray said that the high projections in that report were based on the likelihood of outbreaks on the level of New York happening elsewhere. He said: “We don’t see that because we’re building into the modelling the rising temperatures and rising testing and contact tracing. That will put the brakes on transmission.”

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