Coronavirus Models Offer the Big Picture, Not the Details of What May Come

Ontario followed British Columbia on Friday by releasing its projections for what may lie ahead in those provinces with the coronavirus.

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Credit…Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

But before getting into that, here’s some advice about those forecasts from Dr. Ross E.G. Upshur, a physician and researcher who is the head of clinical public health at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana Faculty of Public Health: “Don’t obsess about the numbers because they will change.”

Dr. Upshur isn’t dismissing the forecasts. He said that they were an important planning tool for the health care system. “All models lie,” he said, citing a popular expression in his professional world. “But some are more useful than others.”

He compared the forecasts from the provinces to the ones Environment Canada issues for the weather. Both start with a set of assumptions, which are constantly refined, and each piece of data that’s fed into them subtly affects their predictions. Canadian researchers, Dr. Upshur said, have already adjusted their assumptions to reflect that victims here have, on the whole, been older and were afflicted with more medical conditions before becoming infected than people killed by the virus in China.

The result he said, is much like the view people with myopia have when they remove their glasses. They can see the general outline of things but “it’s not going to be clear and in detail.”

Complicating things is that Ontario and British Columbia released numbers that largely looked at different factors. Both offered a mix of grim news and mild encouragement.

British Columbia focused on the number of cases, people expected to test positive for the virus, while Ontario’s emphasis was on the likely number of deaths.

The British Columbia model suggests that the steps taken there have been effective at slowing the rate of growth of cases. And signs are looking positive that its medical system won’t be overwhelmed by people who develop severe illness from the virus.

As Premier Doug Ford warned in advance, Ontario’s model made for grim reading. It currently estimates that by the time the virus has run its full course, perhaps 18 months to two years in the future, it will have killed 3,000 to 15,000 people in the country’s most populous province. But in the absence of preventive measures including the current shutdown of most aspects of daily life, the model projected 100,000 deaths related to the virus.

On Friday, Mr. Ford also expanded the scale of that shutdown.

“We’ve told the vast majority of Ontario’s work force to stay home,” he told a news conference. “Lives are on the line.”

Ontario’s forecast for the number proved difficult to calculate because of a large test laboratory backlog, which has just been cleared. But Dr. Peter Donnelly, head of Public Health Ontario, said that its track, the rate at which cases are growing, was closer to that of the United States rather than British Columbia.

Despite this, Ontario is projecting that its hospitals, like those in British Columbia, are not likely to be overwhelmed after including current plans to expand their acute care capacity. But the province’s PowerPoint charts show that’s the case just by a whisker.

Dr. Upshur said that the two provinces’ models suggested they were behind China and Italy at this point. That, he cautioned, does not mean that things are good.

“Covid-19 is very, very worrying and dangerous indeed,” he said. “This may be the biggest single challenge since World War II.”

All week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been pressed to release the federal government’s forecasts. But its models are built on data from the provinces. On Friday he again promised that they would be made available, but said that the government was still waiting for figures from some provinces.

Like other politicians, Mr. Trudeau has also been repeatedly asked when life may return to normal.

He has repeatedly declined to offer a specific answer, and Dr. Upshur said that it was almost a question not worth asking.

“Of course we all want things to go away fast,” he said. “But you cannot will a virus away.”

Getting there, he said, requires all Canadians to take the advice of public health officials seriously.

“They are not fools, they are not government lackeys,” he said. “I really implore all Canadians to trust in the public health and medical system.”

Before Ontario released its numbers on Friday, it appeared that a directive from the Trump White House would block shipments to Canada of surgical masks and respirators from 3M factories in the United States and China. My colleagues Ana Swanson, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Maggie Haberman reported that as 3M pushed back, the Trump administration suggested that Canada and Mexico wouldn’t be cut off, although other nations would.

[Read: Trump Seeks to Block 3M Mask Exports and Grab Masks from Its Overseas Customers]

A reminder that The Times’s coronavirus coverage may be viewed for free without a subscription, although you may be asked to register. It’s consolidated on this constantly updated page.

This week I did get a bit of a break from listening to the sometimes grim federal and provincial virus briefings to speak with Margaret Atwood. At her suggestion, and with some money from Facebook, the National Arts Centre has started a virtual book tour series for authors who are about to release new books. It’s a product of what Ms. Atwood called our current “better-than-nothing era — do what you can.”

[Read: At Margaret Atwood’s Prompting, Canada Launches Virtual Book Tours]

Similarly, from Vancouver, Josh Kron tells the story of a quickly produced coronavirus movie.

[Read: A Coronavirus Thriller Was Finished Just Before the Shutdown]

Several of you have sent gracious notes about The Times’s coverage of the pandemic. While we are taking unusual, carefully vetted safety precautions, many of my colleagues have exposed themselves to risk, particularly photographers. That group particularly includes Fabio Bucciarelli whose intimate work in Bergamo, Italy, provides a close, sometimes horrifying look at what people there are enduring.

[Read and View: ‘We Take the Dead From Morning Till Night’]


  • This month on Netflix Canadians can catch Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of “The Age of Innocence,” the novel by Edith Wharton, as well as “Never Have I Ever,” a series in which Mindy Kaling draws on her days as an Indian-American teenager in suburban Massachusetts.


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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