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We might know exactly how many Americans are contagious with coronavirus

Published Nov 18th, 2020 5:28PM EST
Image: vladimirhodac/Adobe

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  • Coronavirus transmission is out of control in the US, with models estimating that the number of infections far exceeds the daily figures.
  • An estimate from Columbia University says that well over 3 million Americans are contagious. The figure does not include the people who are too early in the illness to spread it to others.
  • The fall wave could surge further, especially with Thanksgiving around the corner.

The novel coronavirus pandemic is still out of control in the US, with authorities reporting well over 100,000 cases a day for most of November so far. The number of daily cases soared to over 177,000 last Friday, and there’s no telling if that’s the peak of the current wave or not. Many people are failing to respect safety measures that can reduce the risk of transmission, and there’s still no uniform strategy for reducing the spread of the illness.

Coronavirus vaccines might be around the corner, but only a limited number of people will take them this year. Even so, many people might choose to wait or not get vaccinated at all. With no clear plan to stop the current surge, millions of Americans might get infected in the coming months. With that in mind, researchers think they know exactly how many Americans have COVID-19 and are contagious right now. As you might suspect, that number is a lot larger than the daily number of newly reported cases.

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A model from Columbia University estimates that some 3.6 million Americans are currently infected and contagious with COVID-19. That’s a 34% week-to-week increase. The week before also had a 36% increase over the previous 7-day period. The estimate doesn’t include the number of people who might be infected right now without knowing, as the virus is still incubating and has yet to cause any symptoms in those individuals.

The figure is close to 1% of the population, explains The Washington Post, saying it’s equal to the number of public school teachers and the number of truck drivers. Putting it differently, The Post says that about 1,000 people seated in the University of Michigan’s football stadium would be infectious right now.

The figure could further spiral out of control after Thanksgiving. “It’s bad; it’s really, really bad,” Columbia University epidemiologist Jeffrey Shaman told the paper. “We’re running into Thanksgiving now, and that’s only going to make it worse. We’re going to go through a lot of people being infected between now and the end of the year, unfortunately.”

A separate model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation said Tuesday that as many as 3.2 million people were infected since Election Day. The estimate is significantly larger than the number of confirmed cases during the period, which sits at approximately 1.95 million. The model estimates continued daily increases for a month and a half, with as many as 245,000 people getting infected on Tuesday alone.

The Post further notes that the current wave is much bigger than the one last spring. Outbreaks are widespread right now, with 49 states recording increases in hospitalizations. The paper speculates that the current wave is probably many weeks from cresting. What’s worse is that 8 in 10 Americans are still susceptible to infection, according to some estimates.

As for the people who have not been tested, The Post says that it includes several categories of COVID-19 patients: People who don’t have symptoms now (but will), true asymptomatic, and people who don’t want to face the consequences of a positive test.

The current period is similar to the late March-early April one, where the US had a hard time testing people. At the time, the CDC estimated there were 10 times as many infected people as the number of reported cases. Columbia University used a lower multiplier (5.5) for their model this time around, which gave them a total number of infections of 10 million for the past two weeks in the US.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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