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VERIFY: 'Coronavirus Act Now' charts use real data to estimate worst-case scenario

A series of charts have been circling the internet. They’re targeted at officials and lawmakers to show how bad things can get if they don’t act.

WASHINGTON —

A website is being shared on social media with the blurb: “This model predicts the last day each state can act before the point of no return.”

The link takes people to covidactnow.org

When individuals open the link, they see a map of the U.S. with the message: “Why you must act now.”

If someone clicks on a state, it shows a graph comparing available hospital beds over time with estimated cases over time.

It looks very similar to the “flatten the curve” graphics that have been going around, but it puts a timer for each state. Using current data, the team behind the map has estimated when the number of sick patients will overwhelm the number of available beds.

It’s shown as a red line on the chart and it indicates the “point of no return.”

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THE QUESTION:

Are these charts accurate? Are states really headed towards that point?

THE ANSWER:

The charts use real data to make their predictions, but they aren’t meant to be taken as truth. The site creators added a banner that says the models “is intended to help make fast decisions, not predict the future.”

When the website explaining their results, they add: “Many of the inputs into this model (hospitalization rate, hospitalization rate) are based on early estimates that are likely to be wrong. All users should err on the side of caution and interpret the results of the model conservatively.”

So, yes. They’re taking the existing data and estimating what could happen if officials don’t take certain actions to slow the spread.

It’s a worst-case projection, but it could happen.

WHAT WE FOUND:

The site’s creators put together a list of their methodology and the assumptions they make to generate their charts. 

They’re taking the data of existing cases and using that to estimate the likelihood of cases rising in different states if no preventative steps are taken.

Then they compare that outcome with similar estimations of the totals under three different scenarios:

  1. If people use social distancing for three months,
  2. If people shelter in place for three months,
  3. If there’s a lockdown similar to the one in Wuhan, China

“Nobody can predict the future, this is just what the best math we have is telling us, and it will change over time,” One of the site’s founders, Max Henderson said in a written statement to VERIFY. “The idea is not to get caught up in specifics but to see the overall trend for what it is. Given the cost of acting versus not acting, we advocate immediate action.”

The graphs do leave out some context. They don’t reflect the actions that states have already taken, for instance. 

States like Ohio, have already ordered stay-at-home policies, but their State’s graph still shows the same trend.

Henderson said they’re working to update states that have taken action, but for now they “should assume their outcome will be similar to whatever scenario corresponds most closely to what they have done.”

When asked how Henderson would hope regular people interpreted the charts, he wrote:

“Exponential growth isn’t intuitive, and so seeing it for the first time can be shocking. This is not meant to be a cause for panic! This is a time for us to come together as Americans to go to war against CoVid.  This model is an example of how quickly things COULD escalate if we don’t act now. We need to buy time for our government and healthcare leaders to prepare. We at CovidActNow are actively engaged in that effort. Quick and decisive action is imperative. Reach out to your local and state officials and tell them you care. Take distancing and hygiene seriously, and stay home if you’re sick.  This is an opportunity for us to prove that American solidarity and ingenuity can overcome anything. If we come together, we will beat this thing!”

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