Epidemiologists question accuracy of IHME's COVID-19 projections

Mackenzie Bean - Print  | 

COVID-19 projections from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle are unreliable and should not be used to inform national policy, epidemiologists told STAT.

"It's not a model that most of us in the infectious disease epidemiology field think is well suited" for projecting COVID-19 deaths, Marc Lipsitch, PhD, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, told the publication.

Epidemiologists are split on whether IHME's death projections are too low or high, but the majority STAT spoke to agree that the model's volatility is concerning. The model initially projected up to 240,000 deaths would occur through August. That figure has since fallen to about 70,000 deaths. 

"That the IHME model keeps changing is evidence of its lack of reliability as a predictive tool," Ruth Etzioni, PhD, an epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and colleague to several researchers who helped develop the model, told STAT. "That it is being used for policy decisions and its results interpreted wrongly is a travesty unfolding before our eyes."

The White House has used IHME projections to help guide national COVID-19 guidelines. Epidemiologists said they are concerned the projected drop in deaths could create misplaced confidence in how well social distancing strategies are working. Becoming too complacent or lifting social distancing restrictions too soon could cause another surge of cases, they warned.

IHME's website contains a frequently asked questions page, which includes a question about why its projections are changing.

"As data continue to come in, our estimates may change," IHME wrote in response. "Specifically, new death data and new information about the number of COVID-19 patients who need hospital beds have changed our projections."

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