Speakers: Bar-Yam, Y. (New England Complex Systems Institute [NECSI])
Date: 19 March 2020
SMA hosted a speaker session presented by Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam (New England Complex Systems Institute [NECSI]) as a part of its SMA General Speaker Series. Dr. Bar-Yam first stated that decisions matter. Rapid response planning and determining how to execute a plan quickly is best understood from a military perspective, according to Dr. Bar-Yam. He then focused on the comparison commonly made between the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and the common flu. He stated that this comparison paints the wrong picture; the common flu has a fatality rate of about 0.1%, and the number of individuals hospitalized is very small. COVID-19, however, has a 20% hospitalization rate, a 2-4% fatality rate at minimum, and 10% of those infected require ventilators. Dr. Bar-Yam then explained that mild cases of COVID-19 aren’t particularly mild. Moreover, it often takes several days—sometimes weeks—for a case to become severe and require hospitalization. Dr. Bar-Yam claimed that the outbreak in the US is likely to be more similar to that of Italy than that of China and South Korea. He stated that our hospital system will become overloaded, just as Italy’s has. Hospitals will quickly reach capacity as new severe cases arrive daily, military equipment will be required to supplement hospital’s equipment, and hospital staff will become overloaded. Consequently, the US may begin to see a fatality rate more comparable to Italy’s 8% if no immediate action is taken.
China imposed a lockdown when there was 800 cases, according to Dr. Bar-Yam. China ended up with 80,000 cases total and needed to build 14 additional hospitals for different levels of care. Even with those extra hospitals, the 20,000 or fewer individuals that required hospitalization overwhelmed China’s healthcare system. The US had 9,000 cases as of Wednesday, 18 March 2020—over ten times the number of cases that China had when it began its lockdown. Dr. Bar-Yam anticipated that the US will run out of ventilators, and there is nothing that decision makers can do now to prevent the medical system from being overloaded. The individuals that are going to need to be hospitalized are already sick. There are also more individuals in the US that either have the virus and do not yet realize it or have the virus but have yet to be tested. Dr. Bar-Yam predicted that the US will encounter 90,000 cases at a week from the date of this briefing and 900,000 cases the following week, if no immediate action is taken. He added that 200,000 hospitalizations will surely overwhelm the US’s medical system.
Next, Dr. Bar Yam discussed what the US can do to prevent the spread of this virus and to reduce the number of American deaths. He stated that US decision makers must take extreme and radical actions NOW, as every day, the problems caused by this outbreak continue to get worse. Dr. Bar-Yam suggested that if the US imposes a complete lockdown, the outbreak will be over in around five weeks. Moreover, if the US effectively locks down, the virus will not return. Dr. Bar-Yam stated that two weeks is the maximum incubation period for the virus. In two weeks, the US will have identified everyone that is sick. Afterwards, the only ones that would become sick are those that are in direct contact with others who are sick. A few more random cases will appear, then in four weeks, the spread of the virus will decline exponentially. In five weeks, the virus will essentially be gone, and contact tracing can be conducted to isolate those who are going to be sick.
Dr. Bar-Yam concluded by stating that we are running out of time. Lots of emergency management, careful planning, and execution needs to be done today. There will be repercussions that the US must accept, but with immediate action, the silver lining is that the virus will disappear within five weeks.
Due to technical difficulties, an audio recording of this session is unavailable. We apologize for the inconvenience.