Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A forecast released by Los Alamos National Laboratory suggests New Mexico has already hit its peak in new coronavirus cases – or is about to.
The statistical model estimates a 57% chance that New Mexico is past its peak in the number of new virus cases confirmed each day.
And if the summit hasn’t arrived yet, the peak is most likely to come later this month or in May – sooner more likely than later.
Carrie Manore, a scientist and mathematician at Los Alamos, said the forecast covers the next six weeks only. It’s based on data reported so far, she said, not an attempt to factor in potential changes to people’s behavior or other new information that might emerge.
“It doesn’t preclude there being another peak in the future,” Manore said in an interview. “It just means that under the current trajectory, it looks like the growth rate is declining.”
The Los Alamos forecast is part of the modeling New Mexico health officials have been using to prepare for the virus.
State officials, nonetheless, said earlier this week that they were preparing for a peak in mid-May.
The crest in cases is something of a moving target. New Mexicans’ willingness to stay home and engage in social distancing, state officials say, has repeatedly pushed back the projected peak and made it less dramatic.
The peak is the point at which the state reaches the middle of the first wave of the outbreak.
Peak aside, the Los Alamos forecast warns that many more New Mexicans may die in the pandemic over the next six weeks.
The forecast’s “middle-case” scenario – issued Thursday – is that 223 in New Mexico would have died by June 3. But there’s plenty of uncertainty that far out.
The LANL forecast estimated a 5% chance that just 95 people would have died by early June, something akin to a “best-case” scenario. Conversely, there’s a 5% chance of more than 1,218 dead, according to the forecast.
The model produces public updates Mondays and Thursdays.
On the whole, it’s a more pessimistic forecast than a University of Washington model that’s been cited by the White House. The Washington projection estimates 109 deaths in New Mexico through June 3, with a range of 58 to 302.
COVID-19 has already contributed to the deaths of 78 New Mexicans, eclipsing the low-end range of the Washington projection.
The University of Washington projection – issued by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation – includes some assumptions about the continuation of social distancing strategies.
The Los Alamos forecast, by contrast, doesn’t explicitly include any particular social distancing strategy or try to project “what if” scenarios.
It’s difficult to compare the Los Alamos death forecast to the state of New Mexico’s projections, because they cover different time periods, among other differences. Scientists at LANL are forecasting deaths only through June 3.
The state projections cover different scenarios – based on how successfully New Mexicans’ social isolation drives down the transmission rate of the disease.
But at least one state projection, released two weeks ago, estimated 2,984 deaths over the next 12 months – a period that could cover more than one wave of the pandemic and factor in just “moderate” social distancing practices.
State officials have since said New Mexicans have had more than just “moderate” success with the distancing, improving the likely outcome, but they didn’t release a projected death total this week.
Seven more deaths
Actual deaths, of course, are continuing.
Top state health officials on Thursday announced seven more deaths due to the COVID-19 outbreak, as the disease continued to ravage northwestern New Mexico.
The additional deaths – all women – bring the state’s death toll to 78.
Five of the seven lived in three counties – McKinley, San Juan and Sandoval – that have had elevated infection and fatality rates compared with the rest of the state. The other two lived in Bernalillo County.
Meanwhile, the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in New Mexico increased by 169 to 2,379. Of the 169 new cases, 105 came from McKinley and San Juan counties.
As of Thursday, 123 coronavirus patients were hospitalized throughout the state.
In addition, the Department of Health said 573 have recovered from the virus, meaning about 24% of those infected have recovered.
With the state’s testing capacity expanding and the statewide infection rates showing signs of leveling off, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Wednesday that state officials can begin gradually easing up on business restrictions.
But the governor said that New Mexicans should not let up on social distancing and that she plans to extend a statewide stay-at-home order through May 15.
Team’s past success
The Los Alamos model was crafted by a team of scientists with a strong record.
The group won a recent flu-forecasting challenge overseen by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A Los Alamos model produced the most accurate forecasts out of two dozen teams.
The laboratory later took its influenza model and adapted it to COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.
“Our team has been modeling and forecasting infectious-disease spread for over a decade,” Manore said.
Los Alamos is one of just four institutions with forecasts highlighted by the CDC on its website.
“We have done pretty rigorous validation on our model,” Manore said, and it’s quite accurate when forecasting the number of deaths one week ahead.
State health officials have also praised the model, describing it as incredibly accurate and helpful for forecasts of conditions one to three weeks out.
The LANL model uses data from the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. It includes a state-by-state forecast.
Once population is accounted for, New Mexico’s number of coronavirus deaths is similar to Arizona’s. Texas has a lower rate, and Colorado’s is higher.
Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed to this report.