Doctor who correctly predicted COVID-19 death toll in US reflects on pandemic


(NEW YORK) — One year ago, not many could have predicted the toll the novel coronavirus would take on human life. As much of the world remained ignorant to the looming reality of the virus, one infectious disease specialist was able to predict the grim outcome.

Dr. James Lawler, who served in the Obama and Bush administrations, and a group of current and former health officials, quickly reacted amongst themselves to the Trump administration officials’ early messages that the mysterious virus in China was not a serious concern.

“This was my somewhat tongue-in-cheek response to that … I describe Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow [as] ‘just a little stroll gone bad,’” Lawler said.

“Pompeii [was] ‘a bit of a dust storm’ and Wuhan — ‘just a bad flu season,’” said Lawler.

In a series of email chains called Red Dawn, Lawler and his group closely monitored early outbreaks, such as the one on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in early February 2020.

“Despite these pretty aggressive infection control measures that passengers were taking, they were continuing to get sick. That really brought home to us the potentially explosive transmission that could occur,” said Lawler.

While former President Donald Trump downplayed the threat of the virus early on — saying it was was “under control” and was a “problem that’s going to go away” — Lawler did the math. In a private webinar with the American Hospital Association in February 2020, he estimated 480,000 people in the U.S. could die.

Unfortunately, 11 months later, he has been proven right. This week, the U.S. reached the milestone of 425,000 COVID-19 deaths and the Centers for Disease Control warned the toll could reach 465,000 to 508,000 by Feb. 13. Lawler said it reflects how the country is handling the pandemic.

“I think this reflects the fact that we really have not done a great job of mitigating the impact of the pandemic,” Lawler told ABC News Wednesday, close to a year after he made his first grim prediction.

“I had thought that after a while we would be able to act with more uniformity and more purpose and to do the things that are necessary to reduce community transmission. Unfortunately, that’s not been the case and now we’re seeing the impact of that,” he added.

In December, U.K. health officials announced a more contagious COVID-19 variant that has since spread across the U.S. Officials are also tracking potentially other variants from South Africa and Brazil.

“Well [variants] do make it harder to predict, and we’re learning more every day,” Lawler told ABC News. “I think it’s also true that they seem to presage the arrival of other variants, that we may not have recognized yet.”

Despite the variants, Lawler said he believes the current vaccines will still be effective. Moderna and Pfizer, the two companies whose vaccines are authorized in the U.S., have said it believes the same.

“I think it’s highly likely that these vaccines that we have right now, will be sufficient to create herd immunity,” he said.

Lawler said that after a year of confusion and disinformation, he’s glad to see the Biden administration focus national attention toward the pandemic. He said the key to fighting the virus is a coherent strategy for the country.

“I think messaging has to be one of the top priorities. So much has been lost in the messaging, so far in the last year,” he said. “If we could have had consistent messaging from the White House, I think that would have made a significant impact.”

Although Lawler called the vaccines “a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said the country will unfortunately still suffer the effects of the virus in the near future.

“It’s clear that we’re going to see deaths from COVID-19 for a long time in this country, even after the vaccine is fully rolled out,” he said. “We could have done a lot differently and we would have been in a much better position if we had taken actions early on and focused nationally.”

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