How many Americans will die from the Wuhan coronavirus?

No one knows, of course, but it’s still rather disconcerting to see how widely estimates vary. I’ve seen estimates of 500 (already exceeded) and estimates of up to two million (without mitigation efforts).

I recognize that we don’t know how long current measures to limit the virus’ spread will remain in place or whether they will become even more stringent. The scope and duration of these measures will help determine the final death count. Still, it would be nice if an informed consensus formed around a narrower range than 500 to two million.

FiveThirtyEight reports on an ongoing survey of researchers from academia, government, and industry who “are experts in modeling the spread of viruses like this one.” The most recent survey was taken on March 16-17.

The survey results don’t narrow estimates of deaths from the virus very much. The experts’ estimates ranged from 4,000 to 1 million. As FiveThirtyEight’s Jay Boice says, this huge range highlights how much we still don’t know.

With a range this large, I question the value of a consensus number. For what it’s worth, and I don’t think it’s worth very much, the experts’ consensus is that 200,000 Americans will die from this virus.

It’s important to note that this estimate assumes a second wave of hospitalizations later this year. Boice says that “just as flu season can have two peaks, the surveyed experts think there’s a good chance there will be a second wave of coronavirus-related hospitalizations sometime between August and December.” The experts’ consensus is that there’s a 73 percent chance of a second wave.

FiveThirtyEight’s article also reports that the experts’ consensus in mid March was that by March 29 the CDC will have reported around 20,000. The consensus was that there’s an 80 percent chance of seeing between 10,500 and 81,500 cases.

As of yesterday, March 23, CDC was reporting 33,000 cases. Keep in mind, however, that the experts didn’t know in mid March how much testing there would be going forward. There’s an obvious relationship between the scope of testing and the number of cases that will be reported.

The bottom line is well expressed by the title of Boice’s article: “Infectious Disease Experts Don’t Know How Bad The Coronavirus Is Going To Get, Either.”

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