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Apodaca: Revisiting Dr. Dark Cloud’s predictions a year into the pandemic

Transmission electron micrograph of new coronavirus particles, isolated from a patient.
Transmission electron micrograph of new coronavirus particles, isolated from a patient.
(National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases-Rocky Mountain Laboratories)

A year ago I interviewed Dr. Dark Cloud, and it was a jaw-dropper.

Otherwise known as Andrew Noymer, an associate professor of Public Health at UC Irvine and a noted authority on past pandemics and a self-identified data nerd — the good doctor discussed with me the coronavirus pandemic, which was then still in its early stages.

What he related was indeed dark. If I may summarize, he warned of the likelihood that the year ahead would be bad and that many people would die.

At the time, I recall, the column I wrote about Noymer prompted some skeptical responses. Back then he was tweeting regular “gut checks” about potential mortality numbers, which — depending on various factors that could change daily — usually projected a total of at least several hundred thousand deaths nationwide.

Although Noymer stressed that these numbers didn’t represent a hard prediction, he offered them as a reality check at a time when many people weren’t taking the threat of the pandemic as seriously as they should.

Transgender people encounter distressing levels of discrimination and mistreatment, writes columnist Patrice Apodaca.

With the U.S. death count from the COVID-19 virus now approaching 600,000, it’s clear that more of us should have paid closer attention to what he was trying to tell us.

I caught up with Noymer recently to ask him to reflect on the past year, how his expectations matched up with reality, what we’ve learned about the spread of the novel coronavirus and what we might experience going forward.

For all that he got right about the progression of the pandemic, Noymer acknowledged that there were some notable details that he missed earlier on, such as the specific timing and manner in which waves of the disease rolled out in different geographic regions.

And for all his dire warnings, it turns out that Noymer wasn’t pessimistic enough about Orange County, where he expected the death count from COVID-19 to top out at about 4,000. The number is now nearing 5,000, and could surpass that benchmark by June.

“That tells you that even Dr. Dark Cloud was too optimistic,” he said. “It was even worse than I thought.”

But what struck me most about Noymer’s current outlook is that, for someone known for his blunt and sometimes ominous warnings, he is now surprisingly sanguine.

“I have to say that I am very optimistic right now, believe it or not,” he said. “In California, our numbers are looking better than ever.”

But, as one should expect, that more favorable outlook came with a cautionary note.

“I’m less certain than I was a year ago,” he told me. “Even though much of what I said was born out, I’m less certain now. There’s still a lot of mysteries.”

What remains to be seen, he said, is whether the state’s greatly improved case rate will hold, or if we’ll experience a resurgence similar to ones that are occurring in other states such as Michigan.

As Noymer explained it, after hitting a scary high peak in January, California’s numbers began to fall, and we are now in “a trough.”

“We have the golden opportunity here in the Golden State to vaccinate like mad in the next six weeks and ensure that the trough is a low plateau and not a dip between waves.”

He is also circumspect regarding the outlook nationwide. In part that’s because the virus continues to mutate, and variants have taken hold in many areas. Recently U.S. health authorities announced that the mutant strain first identified in the United Kingdom last winter is now the predominant strain in the United States.

There’s strong evidence that the vaccines approved for use here provide good protection against this variant. But less is known about other, potentially more contagious and deadly variants that have been spreading rapidly in other countries. And it’s likely that still more variants will emerge that could threaten efforts to contain the pandemic.

Despite the positive news — U.S. case rates much improved from the worst days of the pandemic, and four million people a day now receiving vaccine doses — the sad reality is that the progress we’ve made won’t be enough to prevent more heartache.

“There are more deaths that are going to happen. I’m sorry to say it,” Noymer said.

How many more is impossible to forecast, given that there are still many unknown factors and the reality that the virus is still surging in some places around the globe. Noymer doubts that the United States will emerge from this nightmare without seeing at least 100,000 more fatalities. Preventing an even worse outcome hinges on a continued massive vaccination effort.

“The gut check isn’t to say what’s inevitable,” he said. “The vaccine could really slam the brakes on this.”

Despite his guarded optimism, Noymer’s comments are sobering. They certainly offer a strong argument for all of us to do our part by continuing with recommended precautions and getting vaccinated as soon as possible.

Then perhaps the next time I check in with him, Dr. Dark Cloud will have reason to report unequivocally a turn toward the clear skies and sunny days we’ve all been longing to see again.

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