How to prevent an extra 120,000 COVID deaths over Thanksgiving


It’s almost Thanksgiving and that means that families will be getting together across the nation. Many University students, school children, and parents will be traveling to meet up with other friends and family in different areas of the country. People have been asking me how this will impact COVID-19 numbers and deaths.

Well, I decided to tackle that question with a simulation of my COVID projection model with and without Thanksgiving. Currently my model is predicting a peak of around 140,000 average weekly new cases right around Thanksgiving with a steep decline due to herd immunity thereafter. It is also predicting that the Pandemic will be pretty much over by the end of February.

Using the current death rate in the US, this number of new cases would result in about 407,000 deaths. 407,000 deaths is a lot of deaths. That would make it the second leading cause of death behind cancer (~600,000) in 2019. And it would be 12x the deaths from the flu (~34,000).

Total US deaths without Thanksgiving


However this number might be a little low because it doesn’t take into account people spreading COVID over the Holidays. My model is a standard SIR prediction with some important innovations. It is taking into account current real world spread and how it differs by region. You can learn more about my model and see state level projections here. Modeling super spreader events and other one off incidents has been challenging, and is a drawback of all current COVID models that I know about. My model also hasn’t yet fully accounted for the rise in cases due to the election lines, Trump rallies, and post-election victory parties in the last couple of weeks because of the lag time between infections and reporting. But more on that in a later post.

So I set out to figure out how to model what could happen to cases and resulting deaths due to Thanksgiving. To tackle that, I did a thought experiment. A place like say Burlington, Vermont, or Portland, Maine, have ball park populations of around 50,000 humans. I could imagine that it would be quite reasonable to expect that three out of the total students or out of town guests of Burlington or Portland residents, would unknowingly arrive for Thanksgiving infected with COVID. Perhaps they are young and asymptomatic and their Universities or schools are not requiring exit testing. I furthered conjectured that these three people would each spread COVID to maybe about ten other people that they had Thanksgiving dinner with. This doesn’t sound like a lot of people or a lot of spread. But if you then add that extra spread to every county in the country, it adds up to a massive increase in the peak of new cases, from ~140,000 per day to over 250,000 thousand per day. You can see the visualization below.

This doesn’t change the timeframe of when the pandemic will be over- still by the end of February. But these extra cases, would result in an extra 120,000 deaths from COVID. This is depressing I know.

Total US deaths with Thanksgiving


But looked at another way, it is an opportunity to save 120,000 lives. One of those lives might even be someone you know, or are planning to share the Holidays with. And how many people can say, that in their lifetime, they helped to save the lives of that many people? Our actions and the safety precautions we have taken or will take really do matter.

So should you cancel your TG plans? I don’t think that’s necessary, actually. I do think everyone should get tested for COVID before traveling for the Holidays though. Universities and schools should help out with this by offering testing. If you test positive, obviously stay put and quarantine. If you test negative, then you should feel relatively ok about traveling and seeing people. Driving is safer than flying. Flying is still likely ok, but wear a really good mask the whole time while in the airport, and on public transport to and from your destination. Wash your hands frequently. Change your clothes and take a shower when you get to where you will be staying, just in case someone with COVID coughed or breathed on you while you were traveling and the virus is lingering on your clothes or body.

And that’s it. It’s the easiest 120,000 lives that you have ever saved.

Have a very happy Thanksgiving and enjoy some love and togetherness!

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