UW model: Washington could start safely reopening May 18

SEATTLE -- Modelers at the University of Washington are starting to tackle a big question as the arc of the novel coronavirus pandemic appears to be flattening in places like Washington state: When will it be safe to begin loosening restrictions keeping the virus in check?

According to the UW’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), Washington could cross that threshold the week of May 18, the Seattle Times reported. Estimates for other states range from as early as May 4 to as late as the end of June, based on the local status of the epidemic.

The latest projections are an outgrowth of IHME’s continued work to forecast the scope of the epidemic in every state and in several other countries. They come as the group’s work, which has been influential from the White House to statehouses, is attracting criticism from some disease experts.

In a media briefing Friday, IHME director Dr. Chris Murray cautioned that the potential “opening dates” represent a first take and are likely to change as more information comes in from individual states. Among the key variables are whether deaths are likely to drop sharply once they peak, or whether — as seems to be occurring in New York — they will plateau and decrease slowly.

Another main factor will be how soon states can quickly diagnose and isolate newly infected people and everyone they have come in contact with. States that bolster their health departments and expand testing capacity might be able to start opening up sooner, Murray said.

The dates represent the modelers’ best estimate of when the daily new infection rate in each state will drop below one per 1 million people.

IHME’s modeling has been criticized for being too optimistic and too pessimistic. Earlier estimates that as many as 90,000 American could die have been scaled back to about 60,000, while the swings in some states have been more extreme.

In Washington, IHME initially estimated as many as 1,400 people could die from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The model is being updated every three days as new data comes in, and the most recent estimate puts Washington’s death toll at about 855.