The chart that he generated is as simple as it is disturbing. It shows that, as we should expect, far fewer people are dying, per reported cases, than in the early days of the pandemic. But on the chart below, look at August, where much of the published research on death rates ends. The improvement stops. The numbers in the first week of August are not much different from the numbers in the first week of November. By Bedford’s method, the lagged case-fatality rate has averaged 1.8 percent since August.
This should be an extremely urgent signal that the U.S. response to COVID-19 has put the country on a dangerous track.
Case numbers have nearly quadrupled since late September, when roughly 700 people a day were dying. If 1.8 percent of confirmed cases are translating into recorded deaths 22 days later, the U.S. is about to enter some extremely harrowing days. Every 100,000 cases would mean roughly 1,800 dead Americans a few weeks later.
“I expect the U.S. to be reporting over 2,000 deaths per day in three weeks’ time,” Bedford concluded. “Importantly, this doesn’t assume any further increases in circulation and is essentially ‘baked into’ currently reported cases and represents conditions that take time to resolve and to be reported.”
And this analysis does not factor in new dynamics that could make outcomes worse, such as the possibility that local hospital systems collapse, which many health-care workers and experts are warning about. Already, more than 20 percent of hospitals are anticipating a staff shortage this week—and the Mayo Clinic reported that 900 of its workers had tested positive in the past two weeks. Nor does the analysis incorporate the possibility of an overburdened testing system becoming unable to complete as many tests as necessary, which would depress case counts. Either of these factors could push or skew the expected death rate even higher.
This is an extraordinary estimate—and it cuts sharply against the consensus forecasts of how many deaths we should expect. The CDC has a forecasting program that takes in dozens of forecasts. These are then synthesized into an “ensemble model” that has proved to perform better than any individual model at forecasting COVID-19 deaths. When Bedford made his initial investigations, for the week ending on December 5, the ensemble model’s most likely prediction was 8,606 deaths, or 1,230 deaths a day. The absolute outer edge of its prediction cone was 13,416, or 1,917 deaths a day. Bedford’s method predicts more than 14,000 deaths that week, outside the range that’s supposed to capture 95 percent of future possibilities. This was such a dire prediction that we immediately began to try to poke holes in Bedford’s work.
The most obvious source of overprojection would be that Bedford’s average over the past few months could be too high for these coming weeks. When we analyzed the different lagged fatality rates for recent days, we found that 1.7 percent (or even 1.6 percent) seemed to fit current COVID Tracking Project data the best, rather than the 1.8 percent that Bedford calculated over the data since July.
But these three projection lines, along with a fourth depicting an even lower, 1.5 percent death rate, show deaths continuing to rise rapidly. At a 1.8 percent death rate, we might hit 2,000 deaths a day on December 1. At a 1.5 percent death rate, we’d cross that threshold on December 5. The core proposition held: No matter how we plotted these numbers, if there was anything like the recent consistent relationship between cases at some point in the past and deaths today, deaths would rise far more than the ensemble model thinks is likely.