Covid-19 peaks mean that mitigation is working—but you should still stay home

New York is expected to have hit its peak need for hospital resources this week.
New York is expected to have hit its peak need for hospital resources this week.
Image: REUTERS / Eduardo Munoz
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Last Saturday, US officials predicted that New York, Detroit, and New Orleans—among the metros hardest hit by Covid-19—would soon reach their peak number of deaths. We’ve since experienced a difficult week, with the global death toll passing 100,000 and some places seeing their highest fatality rates yet during the pandemic. But in New York and elsewhere, hospitalization rates have indeed begun to slow.

The news offered “glimmers of hope” to healthcare workers, government leaders, and optimistic investors. Maybe, they thought, the worst is over for us all, and life will soon return to normal. But for the general public, that could be a dangerous way of thinking.

The predictions come from statistical models that incorporate preliminary data and assumptions about the disease (what percent of people are vulnerable to it, how quickly they show symptoms, how many have to be hospitalized, etc.). They also model how it may strain hospital resources—ICU beds, ventilators, admission rates, and deaths are useful metrics since testing data is too hard to obtain right now, at least in the US. The more data the modelers have, the more accurate they can make their models.

Even so, models will vary or even contradict each other. “A wise thing to do if you’re a hospital administrator or a public official is to overshoot the mark with the understanding that the consequences of not having enough [hospital] capacity are really quite dire,” Glen Mays, a public health expert at the University of Colorado, told me earlier this week. Predicting peaks can also help officials anticipate which healthcare systems will need a greater infusion of resources.

For the general public, the predictions are much less relevant. Peaks will happen at different times in different places. While the news that hospitalizations in your city have peaked might be a preliminary sign that the worst has passed, it is by no means an invitation to return to life as usual. Stopping mitigation efforts too early could lead to another uptick and further need for social distancing in the future. Some places might be post-peak, but they’re not out of the woods yet.

This essay was originally published in the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief newsletter. Sign up for it here.