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UTSA Mathematician Projects Up To 1.2 Million COVID-19 Deaths In US By March

Refrigerated trailers deployed at the Medical Examiner's Office in El Paso
Bodies are moved to refrigerated trailers, deployed during a surge of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) deaths, outside the County of El Paso Medical Examiners Office which is located next to a graveyard in El Paso, Texas, U.S. November 16, 2020. REUTERS/Ivan Pierre Aguirre

This reporting was sourced from TPR’s Petrie Dish podcast, hosted by Bioscience and Medicine reporter Bonnie Petrie.

A San Antonio mathematician who has modeled this pandemic since the beginning says more than 1 million people could die of COVID-19 by spring

Juan B. Gutiérrez, chair of the math department at the University of Texas at San Antonio, tracks daily coronavirus cases and predicts how certain events — mask mandates, emergency orders, holidays — will affect transmission regionally and nationally.

Dr. Juan Gutiérrez has worked on infectious diseases for over a decade. His research focused on asymptomatic carriers and their transmission of malaria.

The fear that many people have, what I have computed and at the same estimation for the U.S. unless we communicate that there's risk and (unless) people change behavior, we could be between half a million and 1.2 million deaths by the end of March,” he said.

According to the COVID Tracking Project, around 3,000 Americans are currently dying of COVID-19 every day. Gutiérrez says if people don’t wear masks and stay home over the holidays, that number could go as high as 6,000 in a single day.

If people change their behavior, Gutiérrez projects the U.S. might be able to remain under 500,000 deaths. There have been more than 300,000 deaths as of Monday.

“It's a horrible loss. People who shouldn't have to die will die unless we take action. We have to tell people this is real,” he said. “This is a disease. It has the potential to decrease the life expectancy of the human species.”

Vaccines are now being doled out across the nation, but Gutiérrez said there are other ways to reduce risk. They’re the same precautions that have been repeated since the crisis began.

“From a mathematical point of view, there are points that we can control easily in absence of a vaccine. Those are the contact rates between infected people and susceptible people and government interventions, because that changes the behavior of people,” he said. “So the contact rates are decreased when people wear masks, that is the probability that an infected person infects a susceptible person is decreased by decreasing the number of pathogens that are floating in the air.”

On top of that, decreasing the number of face-to-face contacts and indoor gatherings will also help.

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Bonnie Petrie can be reached at Bonnie@TPR.org and on Twitter at @kbonniepetrie
Kathleen Creedon can be reached at kathleen@tpr.org or on Twitter at @Kath_Creedon