US faces half a million COVID-19 deaths by end of February, study says

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More than a half a million people in the US could die from COVID-19 by the end of February, but about 130,000 of those lives could be saved if everybody wore masks, according to estimates from a new modelling study.

The estimates, from a study by researchers at the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, show that with few effective COVID-19 treatment options and no vaccines yet available, the US faces "a continued COVID-19 public health challenge through the winter".

The coronavirus is tightening its grip on the American heartland, with experts warning of a surge in winter.Credit:AP

"We are heading into a very substantial fall/winter surge," said IHME director Chris Murray, who co-led the research.

He said the projections, as well as the real-life current evidence of rising infection rates and deaths, showed there is no basis to "the idea that the pandemic is going away," adding: "We do not believe that is true."

US President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 221,000 Americans so far, has become the top election issue for him and Democratic candidate Joe Biden. Polls have shown that Americans trust Biden more than Trump to handle the crisis.

The IHME study forecast that large, populous states such as California, Texas and Florida will likely face particularly high levels of illness, deaths and demands on hospital resources.

"We expect the surge to steadily grow across different states and at the national level, and to continue to increase as we head towards high levels of daily deaths in late December and in January," Murray said.

The modelling study, which mapped out various scenarios and their projected impact on the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic in the US, found that universal mask-wearing could have a major impact on deaths rates, potentially saving 130,000 lives.

Current mask use in the US varies widely. While some states, like New York, set strict rules on when to wear masks, others have no requirements.

The issue has become political, in which some supporters have taken their cues from Trump, who is often seen without a mask and has repeatedly questioned their usefulness.

"Expanding mask use is one of the easy wins for the United States … and can save many lives," Murray said.

He added that, just as right now in parts of Europe and in some local areas of high transmission in the US, many US states would need to reintroduce social distancing measures to curb the winter surge.

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