by Marc Stier
Director, PA Budget and Policy Center

This piece first appeared on the Keystone Research Center and PA Budget and Policy Center’s website.

A recent study from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington projects the impact of the COVID-19 virus on the state between now and August 1, 2020. The study concludes that by then the virus will have killed more than 3,000 Pennsylvanians, and it will heavily stress our health care system in mid-April. But thanks to the social distancing and business closures required by the Wolf administration, our state will avoid the devastation that might occur if current COVID-19 trends—which are a product of our interaction before the policies went into effect—were to continue.

The study projects that the peak need for hospital resources will occur in Pennsylvania on April 17 when 9,745 hospital beds will be required. That number is below the 14,395 hospital beds in the state. However, it also predicts that 1,417 beds will be needed in intensive care units, which is 438 more ICU beds than the 1,045 available in the state. It projects that 794 ventilators will be needed. (We do not know how many ventilators are currently available in the state.)

The shortage of ICU beds is very worrisome, but hospitals have 18 days to identify ways to expand their number.

Source:  Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, http://www.healthdata.org/research-article/forecasting-covid-19-impact-hospital-bed-days-icu-days-ventilator-days-and-deaths

The study also projects that deaths from COVID-19 per day will peak at 109 on April 16. Deaths will gradually decline after that point. Social distancing and business closures will, of course, have to remain in place for some time after the peak in order to ensure that the virus does not begin to spread rapidly again. The number of deaths from COVID-19 in Pennsylvania  is projected to reach 3,094 by August 1.

Source:  Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, http://www.healthdata.org/research-article/forecasting-covid-19-impact-hospital-bed-days-icu-days-ventilator-days-and-deaths

Note that all these projections presume that the social distancing and business closures put in place by Governor Wolf on March 18 and his stay-at-home order on March 22 remain in place.

The importance of business closures and social distancing can be seen by looking at the current pace of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

The number of cases in the state has been growing quickly even after a week of business closure and social distancing.

Source:  Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, http://www.healthdata.org/research-article/forecasting-covid-19-impact-hospital-bed-days-icu-days-ventilator-days-and-deaths

And while the rate of increase has declined it is still about 23% a day.

Source: Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center based on data from the PA Department of Health, COVID-19 Cases in Pennsylvania, https://www.health.pa.gov/topics/disease/coronavirus/Pages/Cases.aspx

We should not be surprised that the number of cases continues to grow and the rate of increase still remains high. It takes time to see the effects of business closures and social distancing. The new cases reported today were the result of infections that took place 7 to 14 days ago before the social distancing and business closure mandates were in place. Their impact should start to be felt in the next week or so.

In addition, new cases are being discovered because the pace of testing has increased. It’s quite likely that the bump in new cases reported on March 13, and perhaps the increase between March 16 and March 20, is partly a result of an increase in testing occurring around that time.

To see just how important the social distancing and business closure policy is, we can compare the University of Washington projections with a projection of what would occur if the current trends were to continue.

Source: Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center based on data from the PA Department of Health, COVID-19 Cases in Pennsylvania, https://www.health.pa.gov/topics/disease/coronavirus/Pages/Cases.aspx

Of course, the success of the policy is only a projection and it could be wrong. The IHME gives broad ranges for its projections and even these could be very much wrong. One reason Governor Wolf, as well as the governors of the other states that have instituted policies of closure and social distancing, are reluctant to set deadlines on these policies is that no one is very sure about how effective social distancing has been or how quickly the virus is spreading now that they are in place.

However, the IHME projection is fairly close to the lower estimate Dr. Anthony Fauci gave yesterday of 100,000 deaths nationwide, which would translate to roughly 4,000 deaths in PA. But it is far below Dr. Fauci’s higher estimate of 200,000 deaths nationwide, which would mean about 8,000 deaths in the Commonwealth.

Keeping deaths to the all too high level predicted by the IHME depends on us all following the direction of Governor Wolf and staying home and keeping our distance from others for some time.

It is a sign of the devastating impact of COVID-19 that the University of Washington study counts as good news. We must hope that our fellow citizens follow the governor’s instructions and that this leads to no greater amount of illness and death than that projected by the University of Washington team.

Marc Stier has been the director of the PA Budget and Policy Center since 2015. Before that he served as the executive director of Penn ACTION, where he worked to protect funding for education and women’s health care and expand Social Security and was the Pennsylvania Director of Health Care for American Now, which led the grassroots effort in support of what became the Affordable Care Act in the state. He is also a resident of Mt. Airy.

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