IHME Model Projects Nearly 300,000 COVID-19 Deaths By December : Shots

As coronavirus outbreaks continue to flare in the U.S., modelers project the country will hit nearly 300,000 deaths by December 1.

Eric Gay/AP

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Eric Gay/AP

As coronavirus outbreaks continue to flare in the U.S., modelers project the country will hit nearly 300,000 deaths by December 1.

Eric Gay/AP

By Dec. 1, the U.S. death toll from coronavirus could reach nearly 300,000. That’s the grim new projection from researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation — one of the more prominent teams modeling the pandemic. The new forecast, released Thursday, projects that between now and December, 137,000 people will die, on top of the roughly 160,000 who’ve died so far.

NPR spoke with the head of IHME’s team, Chris Murray, as well as with Nicholas Reich, of University of Massachusetts Amherst, who has set up a system for comparing 26 different U.S. forecasts.

Here are 9 takeaways to help make sense of the projections:

1. Coronavirus is on track to be the third leading cause of death in the U.S.

To put the 300,000 projected death toll in context, it is more than four times the number of people who typically die from drug overdoses in the U.S. each year — and more than five times the number killed by the flu in a very bad year. In fact, if IHME’s projection holds true, coronavirus will likely be the third leading cause of death in the U.S. for 2020 — only behind heart disease and cancer — and a bigger killer than accidents, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, and Alzheimers.

2. The hardest hit states probably won’t bend their curves much

One reason the projection is so high, says Murray, is that the coronavirus is already spreading so widely across the United States. On the plus side, in some of the hardest hit states such as Arizona, Florida and Texas, people have already modified their behavior enough to bend the curve. But while Murray estimates that daily new infections have now peaked there, he says, “We don’t expect a sharp decline in those states. We expect that deaths will come down a little bit and then we will sort of see a slow, steady set of numbers there.” This is due to a pattern his team has noticed when it comes to Americans’ behavior …

3. There could be a roller coaster effect

“The lesson that we’re seeing in the experience in the big southern states is that there is a behavioral response from individuals. When things get bad in their community, individuals are more likely to wear a mask, more likely to be cautious. And that helps put the brakes on transmission,” says Murray. But the flip side of that is that once there is an improvement in daily death tolls, people tend to ease up too quickly. “That creates this potential for [cases] going up, stabilizing, then coming down, [then] people becoming less vigilant, and then cases going up again,” says Murray. “I think we will see more of that roller-coaster phenomenon through the fall.”

4. Starting in November, cold weather could turbo-charge this cycle

In analyzing the pandemic’s trajectory so far, IHME’s researchers have found a tight correlation with the seasonal pattern of pneumonia infections in the United States. And that pattern is that, all things equal, when the weather is colder the virus appears to transmit more rapidly. This is a statistical analysis — so it doesn’t explain the cause: For instance, it could be that when the weather turns cold people spend more time indoors. Or it could be that the virus thrives in colder air. But whatever the reason, the impact is massive, according to Murray. For instance in northern states, says Murray, the analysis suggests “at the peak, which will be the first week of February, we would see approximately a 50% increase in transmission.” And he says the effect will kick in starting in November.

5. Things could be worse than projected if hard-hit states don’t return to lockdowns

IHME’s projections are all the more sobering because they already factor in the likelihood that states will be taking major steps to curb rising cases. For instance, the forecast assumes 50 percent of American schools will be sticking to online-only instruction for the entire 2020-2021 school year. The forecast also assumes states will shut non-essential businesses and institute stay-at-home orders once their daily death counts get to the uncomfortably high metric of 8 daily deaths per million residents. Four states — Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina — have already passed that mark. Georgia and Texas are projected to reach it in September. By November, 16 states are projected to reach it.

Of course, it’s far from certain that there’s political will in many states to return to lockdowns. None of the states that have reached the threshold so far have gone into full stay-at-home mode. Currently “we see lots of evidence of reluctance to do that,” says Murray. But he adds that for precisely that reason the team set the threshold for return to lockdown quite high. By comparison, back in the spring many states put their mandates in place when the daily death count reached just one per million.

6. Things might be better than projected if mask use takes off

One assumption the projection does not include is the prospect of rising use of masks. And this is where the picture gets more hopeful. Murray estimates that currently about 50 percent of people in the U.S. are wearing masks when they are out and about. The team then ran a simulation to see what would happen if starting today, that share was increased to 95 percent of Americans wearing masks. They found that this would cut the number of deaths by Dec. 1 almost in half — saving 66,000 lives.

But what would it take to get so many more Americans to start wearing masks? Murray says that based on an analysis of the data, tough mandates could really help. IHME’s team estimates that when officials make masks mandatory, use increases by 8 percentage points. And when the mandates include penalties there’s a 15 percentage point bump.

7. Even with universal masking, many states may need to lockdown

In the case of four states — California, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Missouri — if 95 percent of the population started wearing masks the state would no longer reach the IHME threshold for imposing stay-at-home orders by December. But for the remaining 18 states that are currently at or projected to reach the threshold by December, near universal mask use would only delay the point at which they reach it by an average of 6 to 8 weeks.

8. New solutions could change the model

Murray says a challenge of the IHME model is that it is based on observation of what has happened so far. This makes it difficult to estimate the impact of approaches that haven’t already been widely used in the U.S. “I do believe that as we get closer to the fall, absolutely the most important question for many states will be, ‘Is there something that is less intrusive on people’s ability to work and their lives that will still provide enough protection to avoid the death rate getting to a high level?’ ” Murray says.

For instance, he adds, “is it enough to have a mask mandate, bar closures, indoor-dining closures, businesses aligned on practices to try to keep their employees safe? And can we model out the effect of that versus the more draconian stay-at-home orders?” Similarly, he says, it will be a priority to estimate the impact of the patchwork of online and in person instruction in schools and universities, as well as to determine how long lockdowns really need to be kept in place.

9. Not all forecasts are as pessimistic as IHME’s

Nicholas Reich is a biostatistician at University of Massachusetts Amherst who has set up a system for making apples to apples comparison between 26 different national U.S. coronavirus forecasts. He notes that most of them are shorter-term forecasts — with only a handful projecting months ahead the way IHME’s team does. Among these, IHME’s predicted death total is the highest. For instance, researchers at Iowa State University are forecasting 236,000 deaths by Nov. 29 — 55,000 fewer deaths than IHME’s forecast for that date.

Reich says the forecasts diverge because they are based on differing computer models, “that are incorporating different data sources,” says Reich. “Some of them incorporate data on recent trends in neighboring states. … Some are incorporating information about which age groups are getting infected.” Others are not. “All of those different data sources,” says Reich, “mean that some models in certain states may be more pessimistic and other models might be more optimistic.”

This doesn’t mean that models with long time horizons like IHME’s aren’t useful, adds Reich. But he says their value is less about providing a hard numbers of how many deaths to expect, and more about helping to tease out the impact of different solutions — such as increased mask wearing, or stay-at-home measures. As Reich puts it, they’re “what I call what-if projections into the future.”

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Breaking New

2020 Democrats say they won’t participate in December debate if they have to cross picket line

UNITE HERE Local 11 sent a letter Friday to all the Democratic presidential campaigns informing them of a labor dispute involving their union on Loyola Marymount University’s campus, the site for next week’s debate. LMU subcontracts its food service operations to a company called Sodexo, and Local 11 has been in negotiations with Sodexo since March for a collective bargaining agreement, according to the letter. A resolution has not been reached and Sodexo last week canceled scheduled contract negotiations, according to the union.

After receiving the letter, the candidates — Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Andrew Yang, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Tom Steyer and Amy Klobuchar — all announced their support of the union.

A spokesperson for the DNC, Xochitl Hinojosa, said the DNC and LMU learned about the labor dispute on Friday.

“While LMU is not a party to the negotiations between Sodexo and Unite Here Local 11, (DNC chairman) Tom Perez would absolutely not cross a picket line and would never expect our candidates to either. We are working with all stakeholders to find an acceptable resolution that meets their needs and is consistent with our values and will enable us to proceed as scheduled with next week’s debate,” Hinojosa said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Sodexo said in a statement that the company is “100% committed to reaching an agreement, and any statement that we have left the bargaining table is not accurate.”

“We have been negotiating in good faith with the Unite Here Local 11 since December of last year with a goal to reach a new collective bargaining agreement that is equitable for everyone, including our employees, and we still intend to achieve such an agreement,” the statement reads.

The DNC pulled the December debate out of its previous location at the University of California, Los Angeles, due to a labor dispute between the university and a local union. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 3299 had asked Democratic presidential campaigns not to cross its boycott and refuse to appear at any University of California campuses.

Warren was the first candidate to say Friday she would not cross the union’s picket line, even if it meant missing the debate, which is being co-hosted by PBS NewsHour and Politico. The Massachusetts senator called on the Democratic National Committee to find a solution “that lives up to our party’s commitment to fight for working people.” She said in a tweet that Local 11 is “fighting for better wages and benefits — and I stand with them.”

Sanders then tweeted shortly after: “I stand with the workers of @UniteHere11 on campus at Loyola Marymount University fighting Sodexo for a better contract. I will not be crossing their picket line.”

Warren and Sanders in particular have made their support of unions, striking workers and employees fighting for higher wages at major corporations a central theme of their presidential campaigns.

Businessman Andrew Yang was next, writing in a statement on Twitter: “We must live our values and there is nothing more core to the Democratic Party than the fight for working people.” He said he supports Local 11 in their fight for proper compensation, and that he won’t cross the picket line.

Former vice president Joe Biden then tweeted: “We’ve got to stand together with @UniteHere11 for affordable health care and fair wages. A job is about more than just a paycheck. It’s about dignity.” He said he would not be crossing a picket line.

Businessman Tom Steyer followed, saying if the dispute between Sodexo and Local 11 is not resolved before the debate, he would not cross their picket line. He tweeted that he stands with LMU workers in their fight for fair wages and benefits.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he stands in solidarity with the workers, and tweeted: “I take the debate stage to stand up for workers’ rights, not to undermine them.”

A spokesperson for Amy Klobuchar, Carlie Waibel, tweeted that Klobuchar would not be crossing the picket line.

A leader of UNITE HERE Local 11, Susan Minato, said in a statement posted to the group’s Twitter account: “We had hoped that workers would have a contract with wages and affordable health insurance before the debate next week. Instead, workers will be picketing when the candidates come to campus.”

Local 11 represents 150 cooks, dishwashers, cashiers and servers who work on LMU’s campus, according to the group.

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Breaking New

When is the next debate? CNN to air December PBS Democratic presidential debate live

PBS NewsHour is partnering with Politico to produce the debate on December 19 from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. At least six Democrats have qualified to participate: former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Candidates have until December 12 to meet the qualifying criteria established by the Democratic National Committee and its partners to receive an invitation to the debate.

The debate comes during tumultuous times in US history, shaped by ongoing presidential impeachment proceedings in Washington, and a country deeply divided along ideological lines.

The House impeachment proceedings are expected to continue through December, and if the House impeaches President Donald Trump, the Senate will likely take it up in January. Six of the Democrats seeking their party’s presidential nomination currently serve as US senators and will need to be in Washington if the Senate convenes a trial. This will make the December debate even more critical as it could be the last time these candidates will have a national stage until the next debate in January.

Several Democrats have ended their presidential campaigns after failing to attract enough support from Democratic voters. But the primary field is not contracting. Concerns about the political strength of the current field has triggered at least two more Democrats to consider bids. Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick announced his campaign last week, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made moves toward an eleventh-hour bid for the party’s nomination. It is unclear if Patrick or Bloomberg will reach the DNC thresholds for the December debate.

In addition to airing on local PBS stations, the debate will air exclusively on CNN, CNN International, CNN en Español, and stream on’s homepage,’s home page, and’s homepage. In addition, the debate will be available across mobile devices via CNN’s apps for iOS and Android, via CNNgo apps for Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire, Chromecast and Android TV and SiriusXM Channels 116, 454, 795.

The DNC stated last year it plans to convene 12 Democratic debates in the 2019-2020 presidential election cycle — six in this current year and six next year. CNN’s live simulcast of the “PBS NewsHour & POLITICO Democratic Debate” will be the third presidential debate CNN has aired this year.

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Breaking New

Booker’s campaign shifts into all-out sprint to persuade voters to get him in December debate

In the memo, campaign manager Addisu Demissie lays out an all-hands-on-deck moment for Booker — saying the campaign plans to spend six-figures on radio and digital advertising ahead of the DNC’s December 12 deadline, while redirecting staff and volunteers in early states toward targeted persuasion.

“Look, the last debate was unbelievable. We had our best fundraising days online in the entire campaign. The surge since then — even my New Hampshire trip we were kind of blown away,” Booker said Tuesday in an interview on CNN. “So we see the energy, we see the surge. If we can continue raising money online, we’re going to start doing paid advertising, like you’re seeing from a number of campaigns — it’s helping their polling numbers.”

During his closing statement at last week’s debate, Booker made a plea onstage, asking voters to help him qualify for the next debate.

In the memo, Demissie writes that “We know the most important thing we can do for Cory Booker right now is to ensure that every dollar spent, every volunteer shift booked, every waking moment our campaign staff spends in the next two weeks is geared toward persuading voters that Cory should be their first choice in this contest.”

It is likely to be a challenging and defining sprint for the New Jersey senator, whose campaign has rated favorably among Democratic voters but struggled to pick up steam. Although Booker last week surpassed the 200,000 donor threshold for the next debate, he still needs to hit 4% in four qualifying polls to earn a spot on the December debate stage. If he does not, it could be a fatal blow to his presidential hopes.

Booker’s team remains hopeful of a late surge, however. The campaign has brought in more than $1 million since last week’s Democratic debate, Demissie said, fueled by “an outpouring of new support.” Meanwhile, larger than normal crowds greeted Booker during eight stops in New Hampshire over the weekend.

But the challenges are stark for Booker’s campaign, which recently began selling sweatshirts emblazoned with the word “underdog.” In the memo, Demissie acknowledges that his campaign does not “have Michael Bloomberg or even Tom Steyer money” to spend on advertising, and does not have plans to go up on television.

Bloomberg, a former New York mayor and one of the richest men in America, is kicking off his presidential campaign this week with a television ad buy of at least $37 million.

With the airwaves crowded with those ads and, to a lesser extent, Steyer’s, “we would need to be spending a lot more … to make a dent,” one Booker campaign aide explained. “And we know that.”

The money gap in the primary makes the December debate all the more important for Booker, as a vital source of oxygen as he continues to try to break through.

“We know that if Cory’s voice is on that December debate stage,” Demissie said, “he will have another opportunity to shine and keep our momentum growing.”

CNN’s Devan Cole contributed to this report.

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Breaking New

Davidson County Sheriff’s Office will no longer house ICE detainees starting in December

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The Davidson County Sheriff’s Office will no longer house Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees starting December 1.

The sheriff’s office is ending the contract with ICE following meetings with local advocacy groups, Mayor John Cooper, Metro Council members and internal stakeholders.

“The continued confusion and hyper-political nature of this issue has become a distraction from sheriff’s office priorities,”Sheriff Daron Hall said. “The number of individuals detained as a result of this contract is less than one percent of overall jail bookings; however, I spend an inordinate amount of my time debating its validity.”

Hall said any future interaction with ICE will be limited to what is required by law.

Mayor Cooper said the sheriff’s office made the right decision to cancel its inmate housing contract with ICE.

“Nashville’s local law enforcement agencies should not use Metro’s limited resources to fulfill the responsibilities of federal government agencies,” Cooper said. “As I’ve stated before, we must find appropriate ways for Metro agencies and employees to interact with federal immigration authorities in a manner that respects the separate roles of federal and local governments while also protecting the safety and well-being of everyone in our immigrant communities. I look forward to the recommendations of the task force that my office has assembled to help address these urgent matters affecting our city and our neighbors and I thank Daron Hall for participating in the task force.”

The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition applauded Hall’s decision to end the contract.

“At a critical moment for immigrant families, TIRRC is proud to work alongside our engaged community members and local leaders who believe in making our city safer and more welcoming for everyone who calls Nashville home,” said TRICC Policy Director Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus. “Sheriff Hall’s decision to end the jail’s rent-a-bed agreement with ICE is an important first step toward disentangling our jail from civil immigration enforcement and ensuring that our city is not complicit in tearing families apart.”

TIRRC said the decision is an important first step toward protecting immigrant families.

“Our goal is for every one of Nashville’s residents to have faith and trust in their ability to fully interact with city government, whether that’s through schools, the health department or the justice system, and Sheriff Hall’s announcement moves our city closer to that goal,” said Bob Mendes, Metro Councilmember At-Large. “While this is only a first step, today, we can celebrate our city’s commitment to focus first and foremost on the work of local government and making Nashville a safer place for all our neighbors.”

Metro Nashville government began receiving revenue to house various federal detainees, including ICE, in 1996.

Senator Marsha Blackburn took to social media to express her frustration over the policy:
Lawless sanctuary cities make our communities dangerous, and this policy is irresponsible. It’s a sad day when law enforcement prioritizes politics over public safety. This decision is a win for one group — criminal illegal immigrants.”

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