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Behind the model that projected 5,500 deaths in Alabama — and why it changed

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Chip Brownlee | The Trace

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Early last week it said 7,500 would die in Alabama by August.

This modeling from the University of Washington’s Institue for Health Metrics and Evaluation has been cited by the White House’s coronavirus task force.

This modeling — that last week suggested somewhere between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans could die — spurred President Donald Trump’s decision to extend social-distancing guidelines through April and served, at least in part, as a call to action for Alabama to issue its stay-at-home order Friday.

Then it was revised downward again to 5,500. As recently as this weekend, the model projected that Alabama would have the highest per capita death rate in the country and the fourth-highest total death toll.

But by Monday morning, it was adjusted again — this time projecting fewer than 1,000 will die by August from the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Instead of the highest per capita death rate in the country, Alabama is now projected to fall somewhere in the middle — 22 out of 51.

The changing numbers and the shifting projections can tell us many things but one is this: that modeling a pandemic is hard, especially when how it pans out depends heavily upon how state governments and the people adhere to social-distancing guidelines. No one knows how this will end.

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I spoke with Dr. Ali Mokdad, one of the senior scientists at IHME and a former official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He helped develop the model. (We spoke before the model was revised downward for Alabama.)

IHME’s model is live. It is updated regularly. It was never meant to be interpreted as a comprehensive prediction of the future. It was intended as a planning tool to help policymakers, hospital officials and the public plan ahead. In fact, the people who made the model hope their projections at present are wrong — that they will be revised downward more.

“By reducing the number of people who have infections by staying at home, you can help the medical system,” Mokdad told me. “And when the peak comes, that shortage that we are projecting will not be as big as we are seeing right now because social-distancing is working.”

The updated modeling shows how social-distancing is working, not that it was never possible that 5,000 or 7,000 people could have died. Had we not acted, had people not changed their behavior, had the state not implemented a stay-at-home order, that could have surely been the case — and it still could be.

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State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said the model has been helpful in planning for the peak.

“I think the thing that’s been most helpful about that model is really the timelines,” Harris said in an interview with APR.

“The margin of error they have on there is tremendous,” Harris said. “I don’t necessarily think it’s incorrect, but you can almost read what you want to on there. We could have 50,000 deaths or 5,000 deaths or any number. But the timeline makes sense, seeing when we’re expected to have a surge. That was what was most useful to us.”

The shaded area indicates uncertainty in the modeling, ranging from 1 to 247 deaths per day on April 25.

A model is only as good as its inputs. Last week, IHME’s model for Alabama had little data to work off of. The state had only just begun to report deaths. And when the state changed its reporting of deaths, and the death toll spiked as a result, IHME’s model — which is primarily based on deaths per day — adjusted.

“So one day they just kind of flipped the switch, and suddenly our numbers changed dramatically in one day even though the situation on the ground was the same,” Harris said. “I am not saying they are wrong, but the timeline is most useful.”

Even though the number of deaths per day is still increasing, the state hasn’t seen a similar jump since last week. The model, as a result, has stabilized, too.

The shaded area indicates uncertainty in the modeling, ranging from 400 to 2,000 total deaths by August.

As more data becomes available, the model will adjust again. The projections could worsen if deaths begin to spike, or the projections could get better if deaths level off before the projected peak in mid-April.

“People are working tirelessly not only to make sure that we’re going to be able to handle the need for ventilators in the coming weeks but also that we have the surge capacity to figure out if we do exceed the number of beds that we have, how we can deal with that,” Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, the director of the infectious diseases division at UAB, said last week. Marrazzo is also a member of Gov. Kay Ivey’s coronavirus task force.

There are a number of assumptions in the model, including complete adherence to social-distancing measures through August. If Alabamians flout the stay-at-home order that began Saturday evening, the projections could surely be wrong — the reality could be worse. The death toll could be much higher than nine hundred because Alabama remains particularly susceptible to the virus.

“When you look at Alabama, there are more people who have risk factors in Alabama and the Southeast in general,” Mokdad said. “More obesity, more high blood pressure, more diabetes and more cardiovascular disease, and more cancer there than really anywhere else.”

If we try to return to normal earlier, then the projections could be worthless because the model assumes social-distancing continues through August. If we stop social distancing, about 97 percent of the population would still be susceptible to the disease. The virus would surge again. Until a vaccine becomes available, the virus and the threat of mass casualties could return.

“Our bodies as a species, we have never seen this virus,” Marrazzo said. “And that’s why so many people are having such a hard time handling it after getting infected.”

That threat could be mitigated by a nationwide mass testing regime, which would enable widespread contact tracing and targeted quarantines. That testing regime would have to include the large number of people who show no symptoms. We are nowhere near the capability of testing the number of people we would need for that to work.

The revision of the death toll from 5,500 down to 900 should not be taken as an all-clear. The modeling is based on the actual death toll, which could change if our behavior changes.


Below is a Q&A of our conversation. It was edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why does the modeling look so bad for Alabama?

Dr. Mokdad: It doesn’t look good, but let me explain why. We are modeling mortality. We take the death rate and model off that. We project the death rate into the future.

Then we back-calculate the number of beds, ICU beds and ventilators that are needed. Because we know from hospitals right now how many people with COVID-19 showed up at the hospital, how many were on a ventilator, how many of them needed to be in an ICU bed, how many died and how many survived. So we can do that by calculation.

The reason we are modeling mortality and not how many cases we have is because we are concerned that we are not testing everybody who needs to be tested. So the number of confirmed cases that we are releasing as a country is not totally reflective of reality. And this is not a criticism of the country; it’s just the reality. But we are reporting as positive the people who came and got tested. And we have still a shortage of tests.

Second, there are people out there who may have COVID-19 but are asymptomatic. We have studies showing that they don’t have any symptoms. We know people who were tested here in our hospital, who were positive, but they never had any symptoms. They were tested and they were found out to be positive. But they can still pass the virus, even though they don’t have any symptoms. We also know that many have mild symptoms and may not require hospitalization. Or some who have symptoms but may think it’s something else, like allergies, especially in a state like Alabama, which is beginning its allergy season.

So we decided to model mortality. We project a peak of demand — demand of the medical system — in mid-April.

The reason why Alabama would be much worse than most other places is a number of factors. When you look at Alabama, there are more people who have risk factors in Alabama and the Southeast in general. More obesity, more high blood pressure, more diabetes and more cardiovascular disease, and more cancer there than anywhere else.

So we would expect people who are high risk to use more resources because they have conditions that would make mortality higher and there will be more demand for resources.

Q: Gov. Kay Ivey just issued a stay-at-home order. A lot of people have said that came too late. How does that play into this model?

Dr. Mokdad: So in our model, we monitor all of these decisions. We know that you closed schools. We know that you closed non-essential businesses and services should be closed. But at this time, we have not added the stay-at-home order. That happened today.

It’s really too late, unfortunately. From our perspective, it should have been done much earlier. We cannot change the past, but we can change the future. So the lesson here is that these orders should have been in place earlier, but from now on, what we really need to stress for people in Alabama, is by staying home and adhering to these social distancing guidelines, you can reduce the number of deaths. The most important part for Alabama is that it could have a shortage of facilities to take care of patients.

By staying at home, you can reduce the burden on the hospital system. You can allow your physicians to have at hand the resources they need to deliver the best medical care for everybody who needs it. By reducing the number of people who have infections by staying at home, you can help the medical system and when April 17 comes, that shortage that we are projecting will not be as big as we are seeing right now because social distancing is working.

Q: Can you talk about the timeline and why this might have come too late for the peak demand?

Dr. Mokdad: I’m not saying it’s too late to do anything. The decision was made too late. It should have been done much earlier. I’m not picking on Alabama. Even in Washington, I would have liked my governor to make that call much earlier.

I and everybody in this country, we saw a pandemic unfolding in China. We saw how aggressive their measures were. We know they suffered. We saw it. So why didn’t we prepare ahead of time for it? We knew this was coming in December or January. We had January and February.

We had over a month and a half to prepare. Let’s be realistic and say a month because the first case was in Seattle. So let’s say we had a month. Why are we having this discussion now about our capacity to produce ventilators? We are the United States of America. We have the best resources. We have the best minds here. We are a resilient population. If you inform the public and give them the right information at the right time, Americans love their country and want to protect each other. So they would have stayed at home. All of us should have made this call much earlier. It’s too bad that Alabama did it on April 4th, when other states started doing it in mid-March. Even those states should have done it earlier.

Q: What should people take away from your modeling?

Dr. Mokdad: We can still make a difference here by staying at home. We have to be very careful. At this time, especially in a state like Alabama, where I worked a lot with the CDC. I worked a lot in Alabama. We know the state has underserved populations. It has many minorities and vulnerable populations. We need to be compassionate.

It’s time for all of us right now, all of us in other states, to help Alabama. Alabama should not be left alone to deal with this burden. It’s time for us to focus on Alabama. I know New York is in the media, and they deserve that, but we should still not forget Alabama. You should not be left alone to deal with this.

Chip Brownlee is a former political reporter, online content manager and webmaster at the Alabama Political Reporter. He is now a reporter at The Trace, a non-profit newsroom covering guns in America.

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Alabama sees record number of COVID-19 hospitalizations Monday

“What we can still control is Christmas,” Dr. Don Williamson said. “We can still control what hospital beds are going to look like in January.” 

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama on Monday saw a new record with more people in hospitals with COVID-19 than ever before and a new record number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units as public health experts worry about what is to come after Thanksgiving gatherings.

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Monday reported 1,717 hospitalizations statewide, breaking the previous record of 1,613 set on Aug. 6. The state’s seven-day average of hospitalizations has increased each day for the last 41.

UAB Hospital on Monday had a record high 125 COVID-19 patients, breaking the previous record of 124 on Aug. 3. Huntsville Hospital had a record 264 COVID-19 patients Monday. Hospitals in Montgomery and Mobile are also seeing similar rising numbers but didn’t break records Monday.

Approximately one in five adults in general medicine beds in Alabama hospitals Monday were COVID-19 patients, said Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association and former Alabama state health officer.

The state had a record high 491 COVID-19 patients in intensive care units Monday, and 244 coronavirus patients were admitted to hospitals Sunday, which was the highest number in several months, he said.

Williamson said that 11 percent of the state’s intensive care beds were available. It was the first time since Aug. 16 that fewer than 200 ICU beds were free, he said.

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“It’s not the ICU beds I’m worried about,” Williamson said. “The overall trend is worse than I imagined it would be, with no impact [yet] from Thanksgiving.”

Williamson noted that Alabama’s seven-day average of hospitalizations increased by 217 from a week ago.

“That’s what I’m worried about,” Williamson said, adding that hospitals across the state Monday were either at their record highs in hospitalizations or very close to them. He also expressed concern over Alabama’s continued rise in new cases, a sign of unabated community spread and a harbinger of even more hospitalizations and deaths to come.

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The state added 2,295 new cases Monday and has averaged 2,206 new cases each day for the last week, which is a 67 percent increase from a month ago.

The increasing case counts aren’t attributed to more testing. Alabama reported an increase of just 4,634 tests Monday, and the seven-day average of tests reported per day is up only 4 percent over the last month. This comes as the positivity rate over the last week was a record-high of 30 percent. Public health experts say that rate needs to be at or below 5 percent or there isn’t enough testing and cases are going undetected.

Williamson said staffing problems continue to be a major concern at hospitals statewide. Medical staff are contracting COVID-19 largely from their own communities and not while at work, Williamson has said recently, which is reducing the number of available workers. Fatigue is also impacting staffing levels.

“We are beginning that conversation about what do things have to look like going forward on staffing with an increase of say another 20 percent in hospitalization. What is it you’re doing now that you don’t do? How do you free up additional staff?” Williamson said.

There will also be conversations about looking for help from the federal government, Williamson said, noting that the U.S. Department of Defense sent medical personnel to El Paso, Texas, to help with overburdened hospitals there.

But Alabama’s growing COVID-19 crisis isn’t just an Alabama problem, Williamson said. The problem is nationwide, and Alabama will have to wait in line along with other states in requesting federal resources.

There has been discussion of opening up medical facilities outside of hospitals, such as the tent hospitals that have popped up in places hard-hit by coronavirus, but the staffing problem is paramount, Williamson said. Without people to work them, more beds are useless, and hospitals can and have found ways to increase bed space for coronavirus patients, he said.

There’s nothing that can be done to reverse whatever bad outcomes may result from Thanksgiving gatherings, Williamson said, and he expects that by the end of this week, the state’s case count will begin increasing even more, and by mid-December, the state should begin to see the impact of Thanksgiving on hospitalizations.

“What we can still control is Christmas,” Williamson said. “We can still control what hospital beds are going to look like in January.”

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Mental Health Commissioner Lynn Beshear to retire Dec. 16

Under Beshear’s leadership, the Alabama Department of Mental Health launched Stepping Up Alabama, aimed at reducing the number of people in jails who have a mental illness.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Gov. Kay Ivey Press held a press conference with Alabama Dept. of Mental Health Commissioner Lynn Beshear for the announcement of Crisis Center Awards Wednesday, October 28, 2020 in Montgomery, Ala. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday announced that Lynn Beshear, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Mental Health, will retire effective Dec. 16. Ivey has appointed Beshear’s chief of staff, Kim Boswell, to lead the department upon Beshear’s retirement.

“When Lynn was appointed, I knew that she would approach her role always thinking of what is best for the people of Alabama,” Ivey said in a statement. “She has created a collaborative team approach within the Alabama Department of Mental Health to solve intricate problems regarding delivery of services for mental illness, substance abuse disorder and intellectual disability. I am truly grateful for her service to our state and wish her best in her next chapter.”

“It is been an honor to serve as the Commissioner of the department,” Beshear said in a statement. “I am stepping into the next chapter of my life proud of the accomplishments of the department and am incredibly honored to have worked with such dedicated individuals who are committed to improving the lives of others. I profoundly thank Governor Ivey for her trust in me these last three years and have no doubt the department will continue to change the lives of the people of Alabama for the better.”

Under Beshear’s leadership, the Alabama Department of Mental Health launched Stepping Up Alabama, aimed at reducing the number of people in jails who have a mental illness, according to a press release from Ivey’s office. Alabama is the only state to expand the goal to include ER’s and substance use disorders, according to the release.

Ivey in October announced an $18 million project to create three new mental health crisis centers to be located in Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville, which will reduce the number of people suffering from mental health crises who are hospitalized or jailed, Ivey said during a press briefing last month.

“When these facilities are open and fully staffed, these centers will become a safe haven for people facing mental health challenges,” Ivey said.

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Boswell has over 36 years of experience working with individuals with mental illnesses, substance abuse disorders and developmental disabilities, according to the release. She currently serves as chief of staff for Beshear and has been both associate commissioner for administration as well as director of human resources for ADMH.

“I’m pleased to announce Kim Boswell as Commissioner for the Alabama Department of Mental Health,” Ivey said. “She has spent the entirety of her professional career devoted to helping struggling individuals and I appreciate her willingness to serve in this new capacity. Her background as a mental health provider as well as administrator makes her uniquely qualified.”

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Vaccines should protect against mutated strains of coronavirus

Public health experts say it will be some time before vaccines are available to the wider public.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Multiple vaccines for COVID-19 are in clinical trials, and one has already applied for emergency use authorization, but how good will those vaccines be against a mutating coronavirus? A UAB doctor says they’ll do just fine. 

Dr. Rachael Lee, UAB’s hospital epidemiologist, told reporters earlier this week that there have been small genetic mutations in COVID-19. What researchers are seeing in the virus here is slightly different than what’s seen in the virus in China, she said. 

“But luckily the way that these vaccines have been created, specifically the mRNA vaccines, is an area that is the same for all of these viruses,” Lee said, referring to the new type of vaccine known as mRNA, which uses genetic material, rather than a weakened or inactive germ, to trigger an immune response. 

The U.S. Food And Drug Administration is to review the drug company Pfizer’s vaccine on Dec. 10. Pfizer’s vaccine is an mRNA vaccine, as is a vaccine produced by the drug maker Moderna, which is expected to also soon apply for emergency use approval. 

“I think that is incredibly good news, that even though we may see some slight mutations,  we should have a vaccine that should cover all of those different mutations,” Lee said. 

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found in a recent study, published in the journal Science, that COVID-19 has mutated in ways that make it spread much more easily, but the mutation may also make it more susceptible to vaccines. 

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In a separate study, researchers with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation found that while most vaccines were modeled after an earlier strain of COVID-19, they found no evidence that the vaccines wouldn’t provide the same immunity response for the new, more dominant strain. 

“This brings the world one step closer to a safe and effective vaccine to protect people and save lives,” said CSIRO chief executive Dr. Larry Marshall, according to Science Daily

While it may not be long before vaccines begin to be shipped to states, public health experts warn it will be some time before vaccines are available to the wider public. Scarce supplies at first will be allocated for those at greatest risk, including health care workers who are regularly exposed to coronavirus patients, and the elderly and ill. 

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, speaking to APR last week, urged the public to continue wearing masks and practicing social distancing for many more months, as the department works to make the vaccines more widely available.

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“Just because the first shots are rolling out doesn’t mean it’s time to stop doing everything we’ve been trying to get people to do for months. It’s not going to be widely available for a little while,” Harris said.

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Alabama hospitals nearing COVID-19 summer surge levels

Wednesday was the 18th straight day with more than 1,000 people in hospitals in Alabama with COVID-19. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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UAB Chief of Hospital Medicine Dr. Kierstin Kennedy.

Alabama hospitals reported caring for 1,483 people infected with COVID-19 on Wednesday, the highest number of patients since Aug. 11, when the state was enduring its summer surge. Wednesday was also the 18th straight day with more than 1,000 people in hospitals in Alabama with COVID-19. 

The seven-day average of hospitalizations was 1,370 on Wednesday, the 36th straight day of that average rising. The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 2,453 new cases Wednesday. The 14-day average of new cases was — for the eighth day in a row — at a record high of 2,192. 

Across the country, more than 80,000 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 on Tuesday, a record high and the 15th straight day of record hospitalizations nationwide, according to the COVID Tracking Project, a coronavirus tracking website.

The CDC this week recommended people not travel for Thanksgiving to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. 

“The only way for us to successfully get through this pandemic is if we work together,” said Dr. Kierstin Kennedy, UAB’s chief of hospital medicine, in a message Tuesday. “There’s no one subset of the community that’s going to be able to carry the weight of this pandemic and so we all have to take part in wearing our masks, keeping our distance, making sure that we’re washing our hands.” 

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Kennedy said the best way she can describe the current situation is “Russian Roulette.” 

“Not only in the form of, maybe you get it and you don’t get sick or maybe you get it and you end up in the ICU,” Kennedy said, “but if you do end up sick, are you going to get to the hospital at a time when we’ve got capacity, and we’ve got enough people to take care of you? And that is a scary thought.” 

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Wednesday reported an increase of 60 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths. Deaths take time to confirm and the date a death is reported does not necessarily reflect the date on which the individual died. At least 23 of those deaths occurred in November, and 30 occurred in other months. Seven were undated. Data for the last two to three weeks are incomplete.

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As of Wednesday, at least 3,532 Alabamians have died of COVID-19, according to the Department of Public Health. During November, at least 195 people have died in Alabama from COVID-19. But ADPH is sure to add more to the month’s tally in the weeks to come as data becomes more complete.

ADPH on Wednesday announced a change that nearly doubled the department’s estimate of people who have recovered from COVID-19, bringing that figure up to 161,946. That change also alters APR’s estimates of how many cases are considered active.

ADPH’s Infectious Disease and Outbreak team “updated some parameters” in the department’s Alabama NEDSS Base Surveillance System, which resulted in the increase, the department said.

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