In a new round of projections, the Scenario Modeling Hub evaluated the trajectory of COVID-19 in the coming year under different assumptions about the durability of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 and the emergence of a hypothetical new variant in late Spring 2022.
Our main findings include:
These projections have several caveats and limitations:
As part of the thirteenth round of COVID-19 scenario projections, the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub has aggregated projections from 7 modeling teams and generated ensemble estimates for the date at which the United States will cross 1 million cumulative COVID-19 deaths, for multiple scenarios spanning uncertainties about the persistence of immunity to the virus. While we may be seeing the end of the acute phase of the pandemic, we feel it is important to take a moment and reflect on this somber milestone and the lives lost during two years of the pandemic.
The COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub estimates that, absent the emergence of a new variant, the United States will most likely cross 1 million deaths in June or early July 2022 (see Figure). However, there is substantial uncertainty as to when we will reach this milestone, with the range of dates this event is likely to occur (i.e., the 50% projection interval) spanning May 5 to November 14 at the time projections were made (March 13, 2022). This range captures both the uncertainty between individual models, uncertainty within models, and uncertainty about exactly how long immunity against COVID-19 persists (as detailed in Scenarios A and C).
The emergence of a new variant or other unforeseen event could accelerate this timeline. While it is impossible to know what the properties and timing of such a variant would be, in this round the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub did consider scenarios where a hypothetical variant with moderate immune escape emerged and started circulating in the United States on May 1, 2022. While the considered hypothetical variant did not substantially impact the earliest or most likely time we might see deaths cross 1 million, it did make a longer wait until this milestone less plausible.
These projections come with the caveat that there also continues to be high variability in the reporting of COVID-19 deaths. There have been notable changes in death reporting in recent months in US states which makes model calibration difficult, and may affect our projections. There have also been substantial backfilling and negating of reported deaths in recent months, so we may be closer (or even past) or further from this milestone than we currently realize. We also should acknowledge that it is likely we have already passed this milestone given that many deaths from COVID-19 may not be identified as such, and 1.1 million excess deaths have been estimated to have already occurred (https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/coronavirus-excess-deaths-tracker).
Figure. Estimates of the date at which the United States crosses 1 million cumulative deaths nationally, from round 13 of the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub.
Table 1. Ensemble estimates of the date to crossing 1 million reported deaths nationally in the US for four scenarios. Estimates are reported as median and interquartile range (in parentheses).
Table 2. COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub round 13 scenarios. More detailed scenario definitions and model characteristics can be found at https://github.com/midas-network/covid19-scenario-modeling-hub.
Round 12 is focused on the impact of the Omicron variant in the United States and updates an earlier “emergency” round. We aim to provide a set of planning scenarios around this variant. With updated severity information that has become available since our emergency round, we now provide 4 plausible scenarios that address different levels of severity and immune escape for Omicron. To reflect residual uncertainty in the characteristics of the Omicron variant, we focus on the projection interval rather than the central estimates from the ensemble.
We note several key takeaways from this round:
Round 11, focused on the impact of the Omicron variant in the United States, is an “emergency” round aimed at providing a timely set of planning scenarios around this variant. Because of the developing situation, these scenarios were necessarily based on the best evidence at the time of their specification, and new information may deviate from main assumptions. Notably, at this point only the “low-severity” scenarios are considered plausible (scenarios A & B, the scenarios selected by default). Additionally, to reflect the larger uncertainty of this round, we focus on the projection intervals rather than the central estimates from the ensemble.
Despite the inherent uncertainty in this developing situation, their remain several key takeaways from this round:
We are a consortium of scientists who contribute to the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub. Currently, we are working to produce a round of planning scenarios to help policymakers and the public prepare for the potential impact of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 that is spreading rapidly in the United States and throughout the world. This process entails careful scenario specification, running of complex models by multiple independent teams, comparison and review of projections, and summarizing the results using formal techniques. Although we have not completed this round (Round 11), preliminary projections from multiple models raise deep concerns about the speed and severity of the coming Omicron wave. This urgency is further fueled by the unprecedented speed at which the Omicron variant has become the dominant strain in many areas. We believe it is important to share these preliminary results to help individuals and institutions prepare for potential surges in cases and healthcare demand.
The planning scenario projections produced so far universally show a large wave of COVID-19 cases that will likely exceed numbers seen nationally at the peak of the Delta wave by the first week of January 2022. While it is clear that the wave of COVID-19 infections will be large, it is less clear what Omicron’s impact will be in terms of hospitalizations and deaths, as much remains uncertain regarding the severity of primary, secondary and breakthrough infections with Omicron compared to what was witnessed for Delta and prior variants. The scenarios considered by the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub capture a range of possible severities for the Omicron variant consistent with current evidence. Depending on severity, preliminary projections of weekly hospitalizations range from levels twice as high as any previously observed in the United States during the pandemic, to levels around half of what was seen at the peak of the Delta wave. Regardless of where the relative severity of Omicron falls, the sheer number of cases projected means that even a relatively mild severity of the Omicron variant has the potential to severely stress, if not overwhelm, already strained health care systems across the country. This includes straining our ability to provide COVID-19 testing to all who need it. There is substantial uncertainty underlying these projections, but they remain one of the best tools at our disposal to prepare for the effects of Omicron in the face of significant uncertainty.
The work of the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub teams, multiple other modeling groups world wide, and the epidemic situation in countries where Omicron is already widespread, all indicate that the United States must be prepared to face an unprecedented wave of COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks and months. However, we are not helpless in the face of the coming wave, and have proven tools to blunt its impact. Physical distancing, limiting gatherings and masking have repeatedly proven themselves effective in slowing the spread of the virus. Vaccination, even if somewhat less effective due to Omicron’s immune escape, remains one of the best ways to reduce the risk of severe outcomes if infected and still reduces the chances of passing on the virus to others. Reassuringly, boosters have been shown to reduce the risk of symptomatic Omicron infections, and hence will likely provide high levels of protection against hospitalization and death; yet only 30% of those eligible in the US have received a booster shot. Antigen testing also provides an important tool to help prevent spread at holiday gatherings, though the availability of these tests has become limited in recent weeks. To the extent to which individuals and communities proactively use these tools, many of the worst outcomes projected by our models may not come to pass.
The COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub is working towards a rapid release of more formal planning scenarios assessing the threats posed by the Omicron wave. It will be important to understand the potential impact of the Omicron wave in different US jurisdictions that have various levels of population immunity. These COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub projections will undoubtedly be augmented by other critical information that will emerge in the coming weeks pertaining to viral characteristics, immune response, severity, and population level impact. However, the best information we have at the moment indicates the threat posed by Omicron is substantial and imminent, and individuals and governments should be prepared to respond accordingly.Signed