A reliable pandemic forecasting model says cases will nearly double by Inauguration Day

As case numbers explode across the country, Biden is poised to inherit a drastically worse crisis

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published November 24, 2020 4:08PM (EST)

Joe Biden | Coronavirus (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden | Coronavirus (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

A COVID-19 forecasting model that accurately predicted the coronavirus' spread over the summer anticipates that the number of people who will contract the disease will nearly double between now and President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20.

In a paper published on Monday in the scholarly journal Scientific Reports, three researchers from Washington University in St. Louis' Olin Business School describe how their COVID-19 forecasting model projects there will be an explosion of new cases after a major "contagion event or right after a reopening" before settling into a period of stable and slightly declining disease spread.

As he authors argue, "each additional infectious individual has less impact on the disease spread as more people become infected," because "infections are more likely to occur within interconnected [social] networks" rather than individuals constantly bumping into strangers and infecting them.

The Olin scholars' model accounts for the fact that different areas of the country will follow different social distancing norms. They also note that if social distancing is eliminated, as many right-wing politicos and pundits have called for, there will be "a massive increase" in the number of cases. They reiterate this point in their conclusion, writing that "we need to be cautious of breakouts in networks and maintain a reasonably high level of social distancing during the reopening of the economy."

One of the paper's co-authors, marketing professor Raphael Thomadsen, told the college newspaper The Source that "one of the key reasons for the increased accuracy of this model over other COVID-19 forecasts is that this model accounts for the fact that people live in interconnected social networks rather than interacting mostly with random groups of strangers."

In June, the Olin scholars' model accurately predicted that, because contagious individuals were more likely to repeatedly expose the same people due to "overlapping social connections," the summer and early fall would see "a brief period of exponential growth in the beginning or after reopening." After, they predicted that they would "expect new cases to quickly settle into a prolonged period of stable, slightly declining levels of disease spread," as Thomadsen put it at the time.

More than 12.4 million people have been infected with the novel coronavirus in the United States as of Tuesday, according to the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center. Within that group 257,707 Americans have died as a result of the disease, more than one-fifth of the total global population of COVID-19 fatalities.

The projected explosion in coronavirus cases is likely to put more pressure on outgoing President Donald Trump to work with President-elect Joe Biden, whose victory in the 2020 election he was unwilling to acknowledge until today. Operation Warp Speed chief advisor Dr. Moncef Slaoui has admitted that he has had "no contact" with Biden transition officials about addressing the pandemic and Biden chief of staff Ron Klain told ABC that "our transition isn't getting access to agency officials to help develop our plans, and there's a lot of focus on that vaccine roll out plan that's going to be critical in the early days of a Biden presidency – we have no access to that."

Experts agree that the process for distributing a successful vaccine (both Pfizer and Moderna recently announced promising steps forward in that regard) is likely to be extremely complex and that it will be more difficult for Biden to effectively implement that program if he has to play catch-up once he takes office. It would also be essential for Trump to support him in his efforts to vaccinate the American population, as expert agree that herd immunity can only occur if at least 70 percent of a population is vaccinated.

Public health experts have been repeatedly alarmed by President Trump's mishandling of the pandemic. Trump's failures include downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic, defunding government agencies that would have helped combat the pandemic, delaying a declaration of national emergency by more than two months, fighting to prematurely reopen the economy, failing to push for measures that would engage in contact tracing and accelerate manufacturing tests and promoting pseudoscience regarding the pandemic. Trump has even denigrated the importance of wearing a mask, though there is scientific consensus that wearing a mask is essential to limiting the spread of highly contagious respiratory viruses like SARS-CoV-2.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2020 Presidential Election Coronavirus Covid-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden Transition