How the COVID-19 Models Failed Us

Commissioner Xavier Suarez

For quite a while now, we have been badgered by “models” of what the coronavirus is projected to do in our state and city.

The most quoted model is the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. These are the same folks who have been predicting that soon we in Florida would run out of hospital beds and ventilators and a good chunk of our people.

Not quite.

Thankfully for us, their latest “modeling” predicts that in just 12 days, by April 21, Florida will “peak” in our rate of fatality from the virus, reaching 242 deaths per day. Well, that is very nice of them – only if you look at the actual curves from which they extrapolate what will happen in just thirteen days, what you actually see is a zig-zag that has no pattern whatsoever.

It’s worse than that. The data points on their curve seem to show zero fatalities one day, close to 100 the next and 0 the day after that.

In other words, some student must have been plugging numbers into a computer as he received them and never bothered to check if the data was current, improperly bundled over time as reports came in, or just plain made up.

As per the saying now made famous by Sanjay Gupta, “all models are wrong; some are useful.”

Here’s what I think the folks at the University of Washington did.

First they took historical data from states or countries that were thought to be “more advanced” than Florida; then they plugged in the population of Florida and one other variable. Yes, I said it: only one other variable.

The only other variable, other than population, is the date at which each state put in place a “stay-at-home” order. In the case of Florida, that was April 1, which the IHME folks consider too late in the cycle to constrain the spread of a disease which, under normal circumstances, multiplies exponentially until the now-famous “apex” is reached.

Here’s why the model has no application whatsoever to Florida.

Of the approximately 20 million people who live in Florida, almost one quarter live in Dade and Broward, which are the two most populous counties. They are also the most urban, and the ones that have the largest cruise ports and busiest airports. If Florida were to follow the New York model, we could rightly expect to have the bulk of the fatalities in our state.

But those two counties were among the earliest to impose either stay-at-home orders or the equivalent: “safe-at-home.” Not only that, but those are the hottest counties in the state and the COVID-19 fellow seems to dislike heat.

And so Miami Dade and Broward have had, in total, a bit over one-hundred deaths, which is about one-fifth of what New York City has in a single day. 

How the folks from the state of Washington – where the virus has wreaked havoc, particularly among seniors in nursing homes – get the idea that in 12 days, Florida will go from a total of 300 deaths, occurring during the last month, to 242 per day is beyond any extrapolation I have ever seen. (I call it “uber-extrapolation.”) This is particularly doubtful when the daily confirmed cases have flattened or dropped for about a week now, despite fierce competition from municipal governments to test people at increasing number of drive-through sites and even at home.

As I write these lines, Miami-Dade County has enormous capacity for hospitalization of new patients. We have gone from 36% to 43% bed capacity in one week, and added temporary hospitals with another 750 beds, plus an entire building at the central Jackson facility that was about to be demolished, but has been kept intact, just in case.

Well, it’s good to be prepared, just in case the IHME folks are right, with their “uber-extrapolation.” But I do want them to know that I have a mnemonic device for their “IHME” acronym, which is “I Hate My Estimates.”


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18 COMMENTS

  1. This article is not very useful but we will see in the upcoming weeks if you are right. If you do, that will be great. But if not, then you will be another voice minimizing the threat and making us ill prepared for the crisis and that is worse. I understand that some people need optimism now but not those who are able to influence how a community behaves. Expect the best but prepare for the worse! Preparation will mean the difference between death and life for many people in our State.

  2. I’m afraid your bias is palpable and obvious. It is your responsibility to be aware of all valid information re: virus before you take report in a public forum.

  3. Mayor Suarez should stick to politics and skip critiquing models. The fact that the data fluctuates daily is not surprising. The model is predicting trends, not daily results. Second it has become abundantly clear that the official data undercounts infections and deaths due to the strict criteria of including only cases confirmed by testing! Miami’s death rate being far lower than Broward and Palm Beach counties strongly suggests this as well as reports from health care workers. If Mayor Suarez was paying attention he’d understand the most critical item in affecting mortality at this point is not hospital beds, but the availability of ventilators and plasma donors. I respectfully suggest Mayor Suarez refocus from attacking straw men and get his head in the game about what this pandemic is about. This crisis is a test of our leaders, not only their skills, but their style, and I believe the Mayor can do better. Cheers.

      • To echo Jeff’s comment. This is not the current Mayor of Miami. The Mayor of Miami has actually been doing one of the best jobs in Florida trying to contain Covid-19 and leading the charge on curfews and stay at home orders. He is also a Covid-19 survivor. Fortunately, at least in this regard, the apple fell far from the tree, as Commissioner Suarez and Mayor Gimenez are doing an absolutely terrible job and not taking this seriously.

  4. Commissioner Suarez fails to realize the reason the death toll will grow rapidly is because the virus doesn’t kill you overnight.

    The number of infected persons has grown rapidly in the last two week, but the virus hasn’t run it’s course yet. Severe cases can take up to 3 weeks to show an outcome of either recovery or death.

    So yes, in a week from now, we’ll start seeing the outcome from when our infected numbers started to grow and it will be exponentially larger than what we are seeing now.

    Commissioner, please don’t down play this. Editorials like this make the community think this isn’t a big deal and will lead to more people dying. Please follow your son’s lead, as he takes City of Miami in the right direction, and do the same for the entire county.

  5. Your opinion column belies your complete ignorance of and resistance to science. Epidemiology takes data and applies to them human behavior, so when a state – like Florida – refuses to shut hotels, allows crowding on beaches, and other moves considered at best stupid during a pandemic, the data say that we will have an explosion of cases. It is only because the more heavily populated counties in Florida took action DESPITE our governor that we have thus far avoided the catastrophic outcome predicted. Our changes in behavior changed the trajectory of the data curves. See how that works? Science! We also don’t know where this is headed, because we aren’t testing so we don’t know how widely the infection has spread. Because of incubation rate, infections and deaths lag behind by up to two weeks, so we may not see the worst of it in South Florida for weeks yet. Now take several seats and leave the science to those who understand it. (And no, they didn’t have college students plug in one variable. That is not how epidemiology works. Stop talking now. You’re embarrassing yourself and our state, and Florida doesn’t need any help with that.)

  6. Commissioner Suarez from the past editorials I have read there is a clear underlying thread. You represent the interest of the Chamber of Commerce by trying to twist the message of science and research to a criticism from a person who is not even trained in scholarly research. If I am incorrect please avail us of your credentials.

  7. If the models have been wrong, I don’t see any problem with pointing it out. To the contrary, when the inaccuracy of the models are this bad, people start questioning and not believing them in the future. I understand this is hard to predict, but they have to do better that what have done so far. Thank you Commissioner Suarez for your honesty, guts to tell us what you think and for keeping us informed.

  8. Thank God for commissioner Suarez! First rational response to this overblown knee jerk reaction to a virus that actually doesn’t kill, has a mortality rate lower that actually reported, and is actually killing more, people through Economic loss than actual infection. Please listen to rational thought informed by data. NY still hasn’t used up its hospital beds and they were much worse than us. Italy has overstated their mortality rate by 99% as reported this weekend. Our hospitals are coding any death to corona virus, our hospitals stil are not near capacity, but we are wasting money outfitting the convention center as a hospital, no one is in line at the testing centers, shorter lines than Publix! Our officials are still reporting numbers daily that overstate the situation in order to frighten people instead of enlightening people. Reporting total numbers vs numbers per thousand and saying we are a hot spot, actually we are a hot spot. Ask anyone what constitutes this pandemic being over…crickets, they can’t tell you because they don’t know. Ask them how many people they have saved…again crickets because they just don’t know. We have to get back to work, have to reopen our beaches and have to restart our economy. Thank you again commissioner Suarez, officials using data vs fear will survive this politically. Those killing our economy won’t.

  9. Liberals always cry and fear monger with emotion like CNN MSNBC the left media democrats etc etc etc while conservatives stay positive and function with reason. FACT!

  10. Another Trump Pupprt who thinks his speculations are superior to the medical experts?
    Just what we need at a time like this!

    • For all you people touting your knowledge or leave it to the doctors you are just sheep being slaughtered without knowing about it. Look at the death rates, less than 1%, look at the victims old and sick people, guess what whatever we do old and sick people die more than young and healthy people. Where is the peak you refer to? What number is that. And for all you math geniuses out there you must understand that every estimate by definition is wrong, because it’s just an estimate. Love in your homes and don’t go out but tell me when will it be over, how many people will this save, how many will actually die just from this virus…stop it none of you know and neither do the officials but you are a lot easier to control when you are frightened, not so much when you are enlightened, be like the enlightened.

  11. Commissioner Suarez,
    Your ignorance is shocking, please stick to something you know like lying and corruption. Its called exponential growth you cant draw a straight line through it. If you actually look at the data, NYC health March 25, total COVID-19 deaths in NYC 280, 12 days later the total COVID-19 deaths in NYC 2738. The deaths in NYC on that one day (April 6) 266.
    So you claim that above that
    ” the idea that in 12 days, Florida will go from a total of 300 deaths, occurring during the last month, to 242 per day is beyond any extrapolation I have ever seen. (I call it “uber-extrapolation.”)”
    This is actually pretty close to what NYC experienced (280 total to 266 per day in 12 days), so despite your infantile analysis this is not outside the range of possibility. Your whole premise is demonstrably ridiculous and either you are either completely dishonest or incapable of interpreting data. Your column could very well cause the deaths of people that read it and dont take appropriate action and unfortunately also those that come into contact with them. As a resident of your district and an actual scientist, I take deep offense to this and will work, donate money and vote to ensure that you no longer represent me.

    • Thank you Brian. I will work with you to show the commissioner that there is educated people on his district that will not tolerate his level of ignorance. We really need to focus on electing better politicians.

  12. The reason the projected numbers were not seen is simple, people valued human life over money. We took it seriously and responded to the projections. They worked, and it is working. An economy can be rebuilt and even started from scratch. But no one on capital hill can raise the dead or create life from nothing, therefore they have no authority to endanger lives, especially for the sake of money.

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