SALT LAKE CITY — New projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a research group at the University of Washington, show Utah is on track to double its statewide COVID-19 death toll in less than 10 weeks.
"We are projecting for your state the cases will go up in winter, because of the seasonality of COVID-19," said Dr. Ali Mokdad, the chief strategy officer for population health at the University of Washington and a researcher with IHME. "We are moving indoors, and the virus loves indoors."
Doctors in Utah said IHME's projections are accurate if the state maintains its current weekly case rates.
"What we do know for certain, the fewer the sick people, the fewer the deaths," said Dr. Kencee Graves, a physician with the University of Utah Hospital. "That's true for everything, not just for COVID."
Projections made by IHME show Utah surpassing 2,000 deaths by Feb. 17. With the rollout of the recently approved COVID-19 vaccine, deaths could be held to just under 2,000, and if 95% of the state were to wear masks, deaths would be held to just over 1,700.
"The IHME's models are a model, right? They are not a prediction of the future," Dr. Graves said. "We can actually control our future a little bit in how we behave as the public."
"It's not written on our foreheads," added Dr. Mokdad. "We can prevent this. We can do our part to limit transmission of the virus, especially around the holidays."
According to the data, the best prevention so far has been wearing masks. This point is clear if you look at IHME's projections for deaths by April 1. On Utah's current path, they project over 2,500 deaths by that time. With 95% mask compliance, that number would be reduced by nearly 500 deaths.
"So that means one-third of the deaths could be prevented from now on just by wearing masks," Dr. Mokdad said.
Although there is hope on the horizon with the vaccine, Dr. Todd Vento, an infectious disease physician with Intermountain Healthcare, said people need to remain vigilant.
"All of those measures that we've been recommending for the last 10 months will still apply," Dr. Vento added. "We'll have to continue to do those even after you get the vaccine."
He said that even though the models can be scary, they are not made to spread fear.
"You can be scared by it or not, the fact is it's just the reality based on the data that we've seen and what they predict," Dr. Vento said.
All three doctors agreed that the biggest takeaway should be that these grim projections can and should be avoided. They added that all that needs to be done is to continue wearing masks, avoid gatherings and maintain social distancing as much as possible.