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Fewer coronavirus deaths in NM, US predicted

Staffers test people for coronavirus at an Optum drive-up center in Rio Rancho on Wednesday. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A leading statistical model from the University of Washington is now projecting substantially fewer coronavirus deaths in New Mexico as social distancing and other strategies take hold.

The changes are part of a broader, more optimistic trend for the United States as a whole, incorporating new information on deaths throughout the world and other factors. The projection fluctuates daily.

But it took a turn for the positive this week.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington reduced its estimated U.S. death toll to about 60,000 people through Aug. 4 – down from more than 90,000 last week.

The numbers are similarly more positive for New Mexico. The forecast now projects the number of New Mexico deaths due to the virus at 394 through late May – a 23% reduction from a projection about 10 days ago, when the forecast estimated 513 deaths in the state.

“All of the available information strongly suggests that social distancing policies are making a big difference,” Dr. Greg Roth told the Los Angeles Times. Roth is a clinical adviser to the team running the model at the University of Washington, one of the most prominent sources of disease data.

The model also moved the date for the projected peak in daily deaths in New Mexico to April 22, or slightly earlier than a previous projection. The national peak in deaths is projected for Sunday.

Top health officials in New Mexico, meanwhile, say the Washington model is more akin to a best-case scenario for the state. New Mexico is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, state officials say, because of its high rates of liver disease, diabetes and other illnesses.

Dr. David Scrase, secretary of the state Human Services Department, said he also has concerns about the methodology of the Washington model, which he said is driven primarily by the number of reported deaths.

“I want to be optimistic,” Scrase said Wednesday, “but we have to be prepared for a more moderate-case scenario than that.”

The last modeling released by New Mexico officials – at the end of last week – estimated 2,100 to 4,700 deaths over the next 12 months. They cautioned that the ultimate death toll will depend on how quickly the disease actually spreads, which depends on social distancing and other factors.

New Mexico’s model also projects more deaths because it covers 12 months, not just the next few months, as the Washington projection does.

3 more deaths

State officials on Wednesday reported that three more New Mexicans died of COVID-19, pushing the state’s death toll to 16 so far.

The state also confirmed 72 new cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Altogether, 865 people have now tested positive.

The deaths announced Wednesday were all adults in Bernalillo County, in their 80s or older and with chronic underlying health conditions.

State officials said 59 people are now hospitalized for COVID-19, and 201 are classified as having recovered.

In a written statement, New Mexico health officials said, “Given the infectious nature of the virus it is likely other residents are infected but yet to be tested or confirmed positive. To that end, all New Mexicans have been instructed to stay home except for outings absolutely necessary for health, safety and welfare.”

Uncertain forecast

The LA Times reported that public health experts say information about the spread of the novel coronavirus through Texas and Florida in the next few days could be crucial in predicting how many Americans are likely to die in the pandemic.

The apparent effects of social distancing in three major hot spots – Italy, New York and California – have given scientists hope that the U.S. death toll could be lower than White House projections of 100,000 to 240,000, which were based on a combination of models administration officials have not fully explained.

The models used to predict sickness and death vary widely and are admittedly faulty, given that they rely on specific assumptions about what people and governments are doing to slow the disease’s spread.

The Trump administration has only committed to recommending Americans stay at home until April 30. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation assumes such measures will remain in effect for at least a month longer, and public health experts have still not settled on a recommended timeline.

“One of the concerns is that a large proportion of the population will not have been exposed to this virus” by then, Roth said. “There is a real risk of recurrent local epidemics.”

Information from the Los Angeles Times news service was included in this report.


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