The US coronavirus death toll is projected to reach 410,000 in the next 4 months if mask use wanes

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(CNN) — More than 410,000 people in the US could die from the coronavirus by January 1, more than doubling the current death toll, a new model often cited by top health officials predicted Friday.

That would mean 224,000 more lives lost in the US over the next four months.

Near-universal mask use could cut the number of projected additional fatalities by more than half, according to the model from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. But it also warns the cumulative death toll could be much higher by the new year if all restrictions are eased.

"If a herd immunity strategy is pursued, meaning no further government intervention is taken from now to Jan 1st, the death toll could increase to 620,000," according to IHME's briefing.

The death rate could reach nearly 3,000 a day by December, an unprecedented number, due in part to "declining vigilance of the public," the IHME expects. For now, the model points to declining mask use in some regions from peak usage in early August.

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The IHME model is more aggressive in its predictions than others. It comes a day after a new CDC ensemble forecast predicted 211,000 US deaths from Covid-19 by September 26.

Coronavirus has infected over 6.1 million people nationwide, and more than 186,800 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Fauci: US has to get the baseline of cases down

Dr. Anthony Fauci says there is only one way to prevent the death toll reaching the numbers predicted in this new model. "We've got to get our baseline back down to a much lower level," Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on CNN.

Currently, the US is seeing about 40,000 cases a day, but if the baseline of cases is lowered, the country could get a better handle on stopping the spread, according to Fauci. And the use of masks would help the country prevent the "scary" number of predicted Covid-19 deaths, he added.

"You can actually handle them, get good identification isolation and contact tracing. But when you have an intensity of community spread, it makes it that much more difficult," Fauci said. "That's the reason why I keep saying over and over again we've got to be very careful, particularly as we enter this holiday weekend."

He's encouraging people to make outdoor plans and keep gatherings small to prevent the spread of Covid-19 during the Labor Day weekend.

Fauci also said he's not sure what President Donald Trump meant when he said the country is "rounding the corner" on the coronavirus pandemic.

"There are certain states that are actually doing well in the sense of that the case numbers are coming down," Fauci said. However, experts remain concerned by a number of states, including Montana, Michigan, Minnesota and the Dakotas, that are starting to see an uptick in the percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive.

Fauci said he would call out any political interference involving the approval of a Covid-19 vaccine in the US if he saw it. Sources in the administration have told CNN President Trump is ramping up pressure on health officials to approve a Covid-19 vaccine before the November election.

"I'm not a regulator, I mean, I just do the science. I'd report the science in an accurate way, and certainly if I saw interference, I would be very disturbed and call it out," Fauci said. He added that he had faith the FDA would do what's right.

Fauci also congratulated Russia on their vaccine development process. He said they had done "the correct thing" in publishing early results Friday. "I really hope they have a vaccine that works," Fauci said. "We need as many vaccines as we possibly can get into the system."

Atlas: I never advised Trump on herd immunity strategy

The White House Coronavirus Task Force's new member, Dr. Scott Atlas, is denying he ever advised President Donald Trump to pursue a herd immunity strategy against the novel coronavirus.

In a wide-ranging interview with BBC Radio's News Hour, Atlas says, "I have never, literally never, advised the President of the United States to pursue a strategy of herd immunity, of opening the doors and letting people get infected."

A Trump administration official told CNN this week all of the policies Atlas has pushed for are in the vein of a herd immunity strategy. But Atlas told the BBC, "I have never advised that, I have never advocated for that to the task force, I have never told anybody in the White House that that's what we should be doing."

But he also says a second wave of the coronavirus is not certain and he's accusing public health experts of unnecessarily worrying Americans.

"Americans are just assuming there is going to be a second wave of Covid-19, but nobody knows for sure if that will happen," Atlas said. "We don't throw out decades of knowledge about immunology, virology and infectious disease, just because we're afraid."

Atlas also claims an ongoing lockdown to try to control the coronavirus pandemic has worse effects than the virus itself. "There's nothing that's more of a slam dunk issue on that, than the schools, because the closing schools to our children is a heinous abuse of public policy." He also said that there is "very little evidence that children significantly, significantly, transmit to adults. There is overwhelming evidence that they do not."

But Atlas says, that doesn't mean people should all go back to their normal lives without social distancing.

He also says it's not appropriate to compare coronavirus deaths in the US to deaths in other countries. When the BBC brought up Johns Hopkins University data that shows the United States has the 4th highest number of deaths per 100k people, Atlas said it's "simply wrong."

Atlas, whose expertise is in neuroradiology, told the BBC he laughs it off when people bring up the fact that he's on the coronavirus taskforce despite not being an infectious diseases expert.

"It's sort of silly" to think "there's some kind of reason that I would need to be a virologist or an immunologist," Atlas said.

Campuses urged to ban tobacco use in the fall

Lawmakers are reiterating a call for universities and college campuses to prohibit tobacco use this fall due to the pandemic.

In a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Democratic lawmakers urged the federal health agency to review its Covid-19 guidelines and recommend no smoking, vaping or chewing tobacco in schools.

The letter cites a study suggesting that young people who've used e-cigarettes can be five times more likely to be diagnosed with Covid-19. Stanford University researchers published the report last month in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

"Following the Stanford study, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) announced that it was banning tobacco use on campus in the fall ... In making that decision, UNLV took into account that if someone is smoking, vaping, or chewing tobacco, they cannot be complying with requirements to wear a mask," Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi and Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin wrote in the letter.

With the public health risk posed by coronavirus, they said, the CDC should "act quickly and forcefully."

Last month, Krishnamoorthi wrote a letter to the Food and Drug Administration asking it to temporarily clear the market of all e-cigarettes during the coronavirus crisis. He wrote it on behalf of the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy.

Young people urged to be cautious

More young people are getting infected with the coronavirus at higher numbers. Experts fear that will only grow as many colleges and schools reopen.

In August alone, for example, nearly 7,000 people between ages 18-24 tested positive for Covid-19 in Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson said. About 30% of the new cases in the state are among that age group.

"While young, healthy people are likely to have mild symptoms and quick recoveries ... they may unknowingly carry Covid-19 to someone older or with underlying conditions, who is unable to fight off the virus. This is why it is so important for young people to take precautions and understand the responsibility," Parson said.

While more young people continue to test positive, the vast majority of them have not required hospitalization.

"I know there is a lot of concern right now regarding college students. But I want to assure you that our colleges, and our universities, have plans in place and are taking all steps necessary to keep their students and communities as safe as possible," Parson said.

College campuses in at least 40 states have seen outbreaks of the virus, and officials are urging caution heading into the holiday weekend.

"I understand many will probably not be going home since they just got on campus. So they'll be around and they'll have some free time," Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said. "You've got to be cautious over this weekend."

Over 200 of the 969 new cases reported in the state are from Washington County, home to the University of Arkansas, he said. In the county, four out of every five positive tests were among people between the ages of 18 and 24.

Dr. Anthony Fauci pointed out measures that colleges and universities should take to open successfully.

Colleges should only consider reopening if they have several protocols in place, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told CNN by phone. They include testing every student, surveillance testing at various intervals and readily available quarantine spaces.

"They've got to have the capability of doing the testing to begin with," said Fauci, who emphasized testing upon arrival. "They've got to have the capability of doing surveillance testing as you get into the school year, and they have to have a plan of how they handle the inevitability of some students who are going to wind up getting affected."

It would be unrealistic to assume that there are no Covid-19 cases on campus, he said, noting that planning should include designated specific quarantine spaces for students who contract the virus.

Pressure for a vaccine grows as election nears

With a persistent polling deficit and a struggling economy, President Donald Trump has cranked up pressure on federal health officials to expedite work on a coronavirus vaccine and treatments.

In his public remarks and through private prodding, Trump has pushed for more good news on the pandemic, insisting that even developments considered minor by health experts be expanded into major announcements for which he can claim credit.

In the last week alone, FDA Commissioner Dr. Stephen Hahn was forced to apologize for an overhyped plasma announcement, subsequently removed a new communications aide and found himself on the receiving end of criticism from the West Wing.

And officials inside the FDA have told CNN that Trump has consistently pressed agencies to speed up their time line for developing a vaccine so he can have a vaccine victory by Election Day.

While the CDC has asked states to get ready to distribute a coronavirus vaccine by as early as next month, health officials have said this time line is unlikely.

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