Another 1,500 New Jerseyans are predicted to die from COVID-19 by December if mask-wearing, social engagement and immunization levels remain relatively stable in the months to come, according to one well-known statistical model.

If infection-control measures decline and the coronavirus becomes more transmissible, according to that model, the death toll could be more than double that estimate.

While predictions from models like this, created by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, have not always been highly accurate, experts said they underscore the importance of individual actions in protecting public health and can help health officials make sure they have proper resources in place.

“There are a lot of smart people behind these efforts, but from my experience we still remain challenged in how we model this pandemic,” said Dr. Shereef Elnahal, president and CEO of Newark’s University Hospital and the former New Jersey health commissioner. “These models are only as good as the assumptions we plug into them,” he said, “and one of the hardest (factors) to predict is people’s day-to-day behavior, especially for the unvaccinated.”

More than 5.7 million New Jerseyans are now fully vaccinated, according to state data, but the immunity is not evenly distributed; in at least a dozen towns fewer than one in four residents have received all their COVID-19 shots. Interest in immunizations picked up slightly in July, after declining sharply over the three previous months, and seems to be waning again slightly in recent weeks, the data shows. State officials are anticipating growing demand for the shots in the weeks to come however, once booster shots get final approval and more government mandates take effect.

Vaccination rates are critical

Vaccination levels are a critical factor in predicting viral spread, Elnahal said, but they are not the only metric involved in calculating the pandemic’s path. People’s willingness to wear masks, limit socialization and comply with other restrictions also shape trends, as well as seasonal shifts that have students returning to classrooms and people spending much less time outdoors, where the virus is less likely to spread.

New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said Monday it was too early to tell yet how the reopening of schools — which are operating in person, with everyone masked — would impact viral transmission. But classroom-related cases are rising in states from Montana to Maine, where more than a dozen schools faced COVID-19 outbreaks their first week back, according to national reports.

While the number of COVID-19 cases reported daily has jumped around recently, it has been generally on the rise since early July and has hovered between 1,500 and 2,500 diagnoses for the past four weeks, according to state data analyzed by NJ Spotlight News. New cases in New Jersey increased nearly one-third between Monday and Tuesday alone, it found, and diagnoses are up over last week throughout the state. Predictions modeled by experts at the Mayo Clinic suggest New Jersey’s average daily case rate could continue to rise by one-third over the next two weeks.

Hospitalizations among COVID-19 patients — a critical metric for public health planning — have also been rising steadily since July, the data shows, although the numbers have seesawed a bit this month. Acute care facilities were treating just over 1,100 patients for COVID-19 on Tuesday, state records indicate, and the majority are unvaccinated. According to an analysis by the New Jersey Hospital Association, unvaccinated people are six times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19; a new federal report suggests those who aren’t immunized could be 11 times more at risk for infection and 10 times as likely to be hospitalized, when compared to those who have had their shots.

Why hospitalizations could more than double

“Vaccination continues to prove to be our path out of this pandemic. If you haven’t been vaccinated yet, make a plan to get vaccinated today,” Persichilli said at a regular pandemic media briefing Monday.

Under the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s model, hospitalizations for COVID-19 in New Jersey could more than double by December, when some 2,300 patients are predicted to need inpatient care. It also indicated 360 patients would by then need critical, or intensive care resources, 50% more than are being treated in ICUs today.

Persichilli said Monday that the state has already experienced a 20% increase in ventilator use over the past few weeks, but that while that trend is notable, New Jersey still has enough hospital resources available to care for more people if needed. At the height of the first wave of COVID-19, in late March 2020, more than 7,400 people were being treated for the disease in hospitals here. Ventilator use alone is now 93% less than it was at that point 18 months ago, she said.

“We keep an eye on it,” Persichilli said, “but it’s certainly nowhere near the use of ventilators in other surges.”

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