Here Is The Worst-Case Scenario For Coronavirus In The U.S., According To The Centers For Disease Control

Between 200,000 and 1.7 million people could die.

a researcher works on a test for coronavirus.
Kena Betancur / Getty Images

Between 200,000 and 1.7 million people could die.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) developed several worst-case scenarios for the spread of coronavirus in the United States at a February meeting, well before the virus had become the widespread problem in the U.S. that it is now. The New York Times has revealed what was discussed at that meeting.

Back in February, CDC disease modeler Matthew Biggerstaff held a phone meeting with 50 teams of experts to map out possible outcomes should the virus get a foothold in the U.S. Specifically, Biggerstaff composed four scenarios — A, B, C, and D — that looked into the future, each model taking certain variables into account, such as how aggressively local governments and health officials — as well as private entities — responded to the spread of the virus.

In the worst-case scenario, which assumes little to no action on the part of governments or individuals, the numbers are described by The New York Times as “staggering.” Between 160 million and 214 million people in the U.S. could contract the virus. Though the majority of those infected could only experience mild symptoms or even no symptoms at all, in terms of sheer percentages alone, that scenario could result in anywhere from 200,000 to 1.7 million American deaths.

Similarly, that could result in 21 million people requiring hospitalization, an influx of patients that the U.S. health care apparatus is not designed to handle. Currently there are only just under a million fully-staffed hospital beds in the United States; fewer than one in ten of those beds are intended for people who are critically ill.

a patient in an intensive care unit
  Calleamanecer / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Dr. Ira Longini, co-director of the Center for Statistics and Quantitative Infectious Diseases at the University of Florida, who has been in at least some meetings with the group of people who were in on Biggerstaff’s conference call, said that the group’s modeling was not made public at first because there was uncertainty, at the time, as to how things would play out and the group didn’t want to give people false information.

“If you overdo it, you panic everybody. If you underdo it, they get complacent. You have to be careful,” he said.

Of course, the worst-case scenario model is based on the assumption of limited to no intervention or other ameliorative measures, which so far hasn’t been the case.

Across the country, herculean steps are being taken to limit situations in which large groups of people will be in the same place at the same time. Major professional and college sports leagues have suspended their seasons until further notice and have canceled tournaments. Multiple schools and universities have completely shut down. Broadway has gone dark, music festivals have been postponed, and churches are using the internet to get their messages to their flocks.

Whether or not these measures will stem the tide of coronavirus in the United States remains to be seen.

Dr. Carter Mecher, a senior medical adviser for public health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, compares dealing with a virus to fighting a kitchen fire.

“A fire on your stove you could put out with a fire extinguisher, but if your kitchen is ablaze, that fire extinguisher probably won’t work. Communities that pull the fire extinguisher early are much more effective,” he said.