An internationally renowned University of Florida epidemiologist estimates COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. will peak between two to three weeks from now.
Dr. Ira Longini's timetable matches about the same time President Donald Trump has targeted for a relaxation of some coronavirus restrictions.
By mid-April, “most of the damage will be done" and it may be possible to better isolate the vulnerable while allowing those less at-risk to return to work and schools, Longini, a biostatistics professor and co-director at the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute's Center for Statistics and Quantitative Infectious Diseases, told CNN on Wednesday.
Longini has analyzed Ebola, influenza, HIV, tuberculosis, cholera, dengue fever, Zika, malaria and plague for the World Health Organization (WHO) and is a mathematical/statistical modeler and adviser with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Longini’s achievements include developing an understanding of HIV pathogenesis and progression that contributed to HIV treatments, and demonstrations that mass vaccination of school children helps protect entire communities from influenza.
In mid-February, Longini was at WHO headquarters in Geneva, where he told Forbes and Bloomberg News that two-thirds of the world’s population could eventually be infected by the coronavirus.
Longini was a member of a WHO research team that tracked studies of the virus’ transmissibility in China. Based on the data, the evidence indicated each infected person, on average, transmits COVID-19 to two to three other people.
A lack of rapid testing and the mild symptoms many incur if infected would make it difficult to track coronavirus spread in many areas of the world, most notably in the U.S., Longini predicted more than a month ago.
“Unless the transmissibility changes, surveillance and containment can only work so well,” Longini said. “Isolating cases and quarantining contacts is not going to stop this virus” without mass-testing.
Trump has expressed a desire to lift coronavirus protection measures sooner rather than later — targeting Easter Sunday on April 12 — to get the economy running.
Longini said by Trump’s target date, we’ll know whether restrictions must remain in place or can be relaxed.
"I would guess the U.S. will hit a peak in deaths in the next two, three weeks, as the doubling time seems to be about two-three days,” Longini told CNN. "Maybe a partial lifting of the shelter in place for those less vulnerable may make some sense, in about three weeks. By then, much of the damage will have been done."
Suppressing the viral wave now could blunt the severity of inevitable renewed outbreaks, he said.
"If [relapse outbreak] is limited, and we continue to protect the most vulnerable, that may be acceptable for now,” Longini said. “Let's see what happens in the next two, three weeks. Also keep an eye on China as they begin to relax restrictions there."
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine modeler Dr. Stefan Flasche told CNN that severity and frequency of relapses will be determined by how effective governments and communities were in reversing COVID-19 spread through shutdowns and social distancing.
Many areas will “have to repeat this cycle for a few times because of an inevitable resurgence of cases in the absence of population immunity. In that scenario, we would see multiple peaks in the upcoming 12 months,” Flasche said.
Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University infectious disease specialist, told CNN the patchwork of city and state shelter-in-place shutdowns will not be effective unless uniformly applied nationwide in containing the virus, which he said will peak nationwide over a six-week span beginning in about three weeks.
"Asking a subset to remain sheltered in place, to remain in home” while others are returning to normal, he said, “that's more difficult to do.”