By one new projection, the virus may claim nearly 300,000 lives by December 1.

By Claire Gillespie
Updated August 14, 2020
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As the world continues to grapple with the harsh reality of the coronavirus pandemic, daily life has drastically changed for most (if not all) citizens: Entire countries and cities have been locked down, and social distancing has been enforced.

But as more localities lift stay-at-home orders and reopen shuttered businesses, everyone's wondering the same thing right now: Is the worst over and, if not, when will the coronavirus pandemic end? The short, uncomplicated answer: No one knows for sure. It is totally dependent on the coronavirus outbreak itself and how we react to it.

While some have been looking at previous pandemics—like the so-called Spanish flu of 1918, and the SARS outbreak of 2003—to try to figure out when the current coronavirus pandemic may subside, even those aren't perfect correlations due to different viruses and less-advanced medical technology and treatments.

Still, the similarities between SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and COVID-19 are there: Both are coronaviruses and have similar DNA, Ravina Kullar, PharmD, MPH, infectious diseases researcher at Expert Stewardship, Inc., and an Infectious Diseases Society of America expert tells Health. They also have the same main transmission route of respiratory droplets and similar incubation periods.

But with the SARS outbreak in 2003, only 8,098 people worldwide fell ill, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and just 774 people died over the course of eight months. COVID-19, on the other hand, has already exceeded 20 million cases worldwide, and there have been approximately 760,000 deaths since the outbreak began, including more than 160,000 US deaths.

Dr. Kullar says that the flu of 1918 pandemic may suggest a pattern more similar to COVID-19, but even that's not an exact comparison. "I think what you can see with the [so-called Spanish] flu is a very similar pattern in terms of how many people it impacted, how many people it killed, and how social distancing measures were not put into place quickly enough," says Dr. Kullar.

For reference, the CDC says that an estimated 50 million people worldwide died during the 1918 flu pandemic, with about 675,000 of those deaths occurring in the US. The 1918 flu pandemic reportedly began in March 1918 and, after multiple waves of the virus, began to subside in the US around February 1919, per the CDC.

Because it's difficult to determine when COVID-19 will end based on the trajectories of other pandemics, some experts suggested that a better question than "when will the coronavirus end?" is instead "when will the coronavirus peak?"

Dr. Kullar points to data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), a population health research center at the University of Washington School of Medicine. The group of statisticians, computer scientists, and epidemiologists has been tracking and forecasting COVID-19 in the US since February. Initially, the goal was to predict when deaths would peak and when health systems would experience surges in demand for care. IHME's modeling found that, in the earliest days of the pandemic, daily deaths and hospital use in the US reached a first peak in mid-April, with a focus on the New York City area. On April 15, specifically, 59,940 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

After that, cases began to level off and drop, until another resurgence hit in late June—this time more spread out among the US and focusing on the Sun Belt region—eventually hitting another peak on July 24, with 59,716 COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Daniel Lucey, MD, senior scholar at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, uses a high-tide and low-tide metaphor to describe what he sees as a continuing pattern of spikes in coronavirus infection that will occur across the nation. "The waves are going to keep coming throughout the summer and into the fall," he told reporters during a recent Infectious Diseases Society of America briefing.

Basically: Even as one wave subsides in the US, another wave may be around the corner.

IHME's projections for the next phase of the epidemic reflect Americans' increased mobility and relaxed social distancing in the wake of public protests in cities across the country. The Institute now predicts that nearly 300,000 people will die from COVID-19 by December 1.

The hope is that actions by government and individuals will reduce transmission, but right now the model shows a sharp increase in daily deaths throughout September. "If the US is unable to check the growth in September, we could be facing worsening trends in October, November, and the following months if the pandemic, as we expect, follows pneumonia seasonality," stated IHME Director Christopher Murray, MD.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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