IHME director explains big spike in COVID death projections, says masks may be 'critical' to keep numbers down

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Dr. Christopher Murray, the director of the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) joined "The Story" Tuesday to explain why the institute's latest model projects that more than 134,000 Americans will die of COVID-19 by Aug. 4, an increase of nearly 62,000 deaths from its previous projection.

"The main drivers of the increase in our numbers ... is cell phone data on mobility, which shows that people are getting out more and when we look back at the last six weeks, that level of mobility is very strongly correlated or related to transmission, so It seems like a good predictor for the future," Murray told host Martha MacCallum.

"The other factors that we are taking into account is the scale-up of testing, which is also going to be critical for helping people understand if they're infected so they don't transmit to others," he continued. "There's also a third factor that we are taking into account, which is rising temperature which will decrease, a little bit, transmission ... so it's those three forces that lead us to our estimate of 134,000 deaths between now and early August."

Last week, the IHME projected more than than 72,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the United States by Aug. 4.

At that time, Murray told MacCallum that he expected the numbers to jump as more states began easing social distancing guidelines and looked toward a phased reopening of their economies.

"We think people wearing masks may be a critical part of trying to dampen down transmission."

— Dr. Christopher Murray, 'The Story'

MURRAY PREDICTS DEATH TOLL WILL RISE AS STATES REOPEN

"Our model is driven by the data, that's why it changes. It's like forecasting a hurricane," Murray told MacCallum Tuesday. "You want a hurricane forecast to reflect the data up to today, and there are lots of things about the pandemic that we don't fully understand. Why was New York so large and why some other large cities have not had such large epidemics?

"We want a forecast that is driven by the data that we see," he explained, warning that he thinks "the forecast may go up if mobility levels ... keep going up more."

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Murray encouraged the public to continue to abide by social distancing guidelines and wear a mask when leaving the house, citing masks as the factor that "may make the difference between transmission going viral again or coming down and being at manageable levels."

"We think people wearing masks may be a critical part of trying to dampen down transmission," he said. "It's something everybody can do. They can also take care to minimize contact within six feet of others. Those are going to be super-important aspects of what happens as the country starts to get out more."