As the surge of COVID-19 cases increases in Maine and across the U.S., public health officials and epidemiologists are attempting to model when the outbreak could hit its peak. Health officials acknowledge that the forecasts are imprecise, but can serve as guide posts as they attempt to plan for the worst.
During each briefing of the coronavirus outbreak, Maine Center for Disease Control Director Nirav Shah provides an update of the inventory of key assets needed to help people infected with COVID-19.
“There are a total of 176 ICU beds accounted for, of which 92 are available,” Shah said Monday. “There approximately 309 ventilators.”
The data are constantly shifting, yet public health officials and hospitals monitor it closely as they attempt to plan for a day when Maine’s health care system could be overrun by COVID-19 patients needing to be hospitalized or put on life support systems such as ventilators.
And those same metrics are also used by epidemiologists and researchers to model how many people may die, or when the outbreak might hit its apex.
Shah says his agency is also tracking various models, but he cautions against treating them as 100% predictive.
“The goal of modeling is not to come up with the answer. The modeling tools are only as good as the assumptions we put in, and then on the other side, how well Maine people follow those assumptions,” he says.
One such model, by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluations, a research firm with the University of Washington School of Medicine, suggests that Maine’s health care system could be overwhelmed by April 25 based on the current trajectory of the outbreak and under the social distancing and business restrictions implemented by Gov. Janet Mills.
The institute’s model for Maine also shows that the state could face a significant shortage of ICU beds when the outbreak hits it peak, and that 373 people could die by August.
The institute’s forecasts were first used by health officials in Washington state to triage an outbreak that has killed 195 people, and it since has been used by other states and the federal government to plan for the pandemic.
Shah says he’s following the institute’s modeling, and others from the Imperial College of London, but again, he’s reluctant to embrace any of the predictions.
“We may come in at the lower bound of these models and in some of them the resources that we have may be adequate. If those measures are not as followed, we may have more of a challenge,” he says.
By measures, Shah is referring to social distancing, school closures, restrictions on business operations or limits on travel — all of which are designed to prevent the swamping of the state’s health care system by slowing the spread of the virus.
Mills has taken a measured approach in imposing those restrictions, and so far has not issued a stay-at-home order as roughly a dozen other states have.
Shah says the governor has hit the right balance, but he didn’t rule out additional steps if the worst-case forecasts inch closer to reality.
“Now I should say … we’re always evaluating options,” he says.
Shah says whether the governor decides to impose stricter options will depend largely on how Mainers adhere to those already in place.
Originally published March 31, 2020 at 10:47 a.m. ET.