Dave Mistich Published

New COVID-19 Projections For West Virginia Give Optimism. But Even Researchers Say There Are Caveats


New projections on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic show cause for cautious optimism in West Virginia, but as the state braces for the virus to peak in the coming weeks, researchers and health care officials urge residents of the state to remain at home. 

Updated projections, released Monday by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, show the anticipated death toll in West Virginia is lower than once forecasted. The projections also show fewer health care resources are expected to be needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, including ICU beds and ventilators.

The updated visualizations show the virus is expected to peak in West Virginia around mid April. The previous set of projections published by the researchers predicted the state’s peak for early May. 

Last week, projections showed West Virginia could see about 500 deaths as a result of the virus. Updated modeling puts that number most likely somewhere just under 200. 

But these projections exist in a range, with the number reported serving as a mean. Current projections show West Virginia is likely to see anywhere between 64 and 577 deaths.

Researchers note a 95 percent confidence interval for the projections. Meaning, that deaths are highly probable to fall within the projected range they have offered.

To date, West Virginia officials have reported four people have died as a result of COVID-19 out of 345 cases confirmed statewide. In a virtual news conference Monday, Gov. Jim Justice announced the latest confirmed death and offered sympathies. 

“While [we’re] pacing significantly below all the other states — and it’s surely significantly below the national average — it is sad and it’s not good enough,” Justice said. “But, you know, we just have to deal with it. We know this pandemic is really rough stuff.”

IHME’s lead researcher, Dr. Christopher Murray, said Monday that early data projections have been largely based on data on COVID-19-related deaths and factoring in social distancing measures like the shutdown of non-essential businesses, school closures and stay at home orders. The projections take into consideration those practices continuing.

Speaking to reporters in a separate virtual news conference, Murray explained the differences between previous and current projections. He also said the rise of COVID-19 came later in West Virginia compared to other places, so there’s less data available to input into the model. 

“It’s one of the most challenging. There’s almost no signal in the state that tells us how West Virginia differs from the average U.S. epidemic experience,” Murray said. “And that’s why our estimates have been changing over time.”

But even though the projections will become updated as more data becomes available, Murray said he remains confident in the current forecast. He and other researchers will be watching as more data on reported deaths comes in from West Virginia. 

“As new data comes in, if we suddenly see a big upswing in deaths that will be telling us something,” Murray said. “For West Virginia — because we think these big upswings are related to density and use mass transit and other factors — [that’s] unlikely we’ll see that big change there.”

West Virginia’s so-called coronavirus czar, Dr. Clay Marsh, said the latest projections from the University of Washington come with the caveat that — like any statistical modeling — it’s only as good as the amount of available data. He said Monday that the state should expect the modeling to continue to change. 

“We know that prediction models have many limitations. They are only as good as the information that’s fed to them — and they’re very dynamic,” Marsh said. “So as the information changes that is fed to them, so do the models. And, in fact, little differences in what is put in can lead to big differences on the other side of the models.”

Marsh said the projections from the University of Washington are encouraging, but he urged residents to remain at home. He said the state is far from the end in terms of fighting the COVID-19 outbreak.

“It’s not time to become complacent. It’s not time to turn back and say, ‘Oh, we’re good,’” Marsh said. “In fact, this is a time that we know doubling down really helps.”