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June 19, 2021
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The number of Covid-19 cases in the United States could reach 20 million by Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, according to a new coronavirus modeling forecast from Washington University in St. Louis.

The model, published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports on Monday, looked at coronavirus case numbers and mobility data.

“We forecast rates of new cases for Covid-19 under different social distancing norms and find that if social distancing is eliminated, there will be a massive increase in the cases of Covid-19,” the team wrote.

The model projected that if current social distancing measures are at a 60% return to normalcy compared to pre-pandemic levels, the US will likely reach 20 million cases before the end of January.

The importance of social distancing: Greater social distancing efforts could reduce the number of new cases even further, although the efforts vary widely across the country, the researchers noted.

“Even small increases in social distancing can have a large effect on the number of cases we observe in the next two and a half months,” model co-developer Raphael Thomadsen said in a statement. “Going back to a 50% return to normalcy, which was the average level of distancing in early August, would likely result in 5 million fewer cases by the end of January. 

If the US returned to the level of social distancing in April, Thomadsen predicted the spread of Covid-19 could be “effectively squashed.”

But this is probably a conservative estimate, the team said, because their model assumes only 10% of coronavirus cases are ever diagnosed.

“However, more recently, testing has increased, and probably more like 25% of cases are diagnosed,” model co-developer Song Yao said in a statement. “In that case, total COVID cases would increase beyond 20 million in the next few months unless we, as a society, engage in more social distancing.”

The researchers also predicted the holiday season will create “a great deal of uncertainty” in the model because people will travel more at the end of the year.