“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,” said study co-author Raphael Thomadsen from the Washington University in St. Louis in the US.
“This allows the model to forecast that growth will not continue at exponential rates for long periods of time, as classic COVID-19 forecasts predict,” Thomadsen said.
According to the study, the current social distancing reflects an approximate 60 per cent return to normalcy, as compared with the level of social distancing before the pandemic.
If trends continue at the current level of social distancing, the model forecasts that the US is likely to see 20 million cases before the end of January 2021.
“Even small increases in social distancing can have a large effect on the number of cases we observe in the next two and a half months,” Thomadsen said.
“Going back to a 50 per cent return to normalcy, which was the average level of distancing in early August, would likely result in 5 million fewer cases by the end of January,” he added.
The researchers said the US could effectively squash out the COVID-19 growth within a few weeks if the country went back to the levels of social distancing we experienced in April.
However, they caution that this is likely a conservative estimate due to increased testing and the upcoming holidays.
“In our model, we assume that only 10 per cent of cases are ever diagnosed, meaning that we will start to hit saturation,” said Song Yao, another co-author of the study.
“However, more recently, testing has increased, and probably more like 25 per cent of cases are diagnosed. In that case, total COVID cases would increase beyond 20 million in the next few months unless we, as a society, engage in more social distancing,” Yao said.
The scientists believe the upcoming holiday seasons in the US will present a great deal of uncertainty to the outlook of the pandemic as people travel more at the end of the year.