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Mayo Clinic experts discuss high COVID-19 death toll projections

Just how far out can the models accurately predict the future?
coronavirus, covid-19

A nurse at a testing site in New Jersey, which is one of the hardest hit parts of the country so far. 

The death tolls forecast by COVID-19 models are ominous. The Minnesota model unveiled by Gov. Tim Walz last week suggests tens of thousands of deaths in Minnesota alone, while the White House coronavirus task force announced earlier this week that the insidious disease could kill 100,000 to 240,000 Americans. 

As University of Minnesota infectious disease specialist Dr. Michael Osterholm has frequently said, the potential of the outbreak can scare people into their wits, convincing them to stay at home and practice social distancing in an effort to slow the spread so hospitals all over the country aren't overwhelmed the way they have been in Italy and New York. 

But how much stock should people put into the alarming death tolls?

"I think, appropriately so, what they're trying to do is frame what they think is likely to happen so that people can be better prepared emotionally, physically, etc. by knowing what the worst-case modeling shows," said Mayo Clinic infectious disease expert Dr. Gregory Poland.

"I don't see us getting into that 200,000 range. I may be surprised, but looking at the transmission dynamics, what the rates of serious illness and death has been, I would not predict that from where we are this many weeks into it. I think it could get up toward the 100,000, but I'm not thinking that it's going to get that much higher."

Dr. Poland's response is similar to his colleague at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Bill Morice, who was a guest on KFAN's Bumper to Bumper show with Dan Barreiro on Wednesday. 

"What's happening now with Covid is we all want to know how this is going to turn out. Yet we don't really know," said Dr. Morice, who said many variables will play a role in the possible outcomes, including how many nursing homes are affected and how many healthcare systems are overwhelmed. 

"From what I am told, the best modeling can only really look for two weeks in any location," Dr. Morice said. "We just don't know how the story's going to play out. It's probably best to give the middle of the road sorts of answers, which I think where Dr. Fauci and others are because you want people to brace for the reality of this."

Dr. Morice added: "The best-case scenario, I can tell you, the amount of biotech industry might that is being flexed at this problem is really quite mind-blowing. Is it possible that someone will come up with something that is really going to blunt the edge or turn the tide in this battle? It's possible. It's not like you'd hold out hope but that's the kind of thing we just don't know." 

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