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The COVID Third Wave: It Will Go Long, and the Death Count Will Be High

By Jerald Hughes & Scott Robinson

Nov. 14, 2020

As the third wave of COVID-19 continues to climb, unsettling questions loom: how long will it take this wave to peak, and how high will the counts of cases and deaths go before that peak?

To answer those questions, it's informative to look at the previous two waves. 

The first COVID wave began in late February, peaking around April 10; the second wave started in the third week of June, hitting its peak around July 24 (see below). Analysis of these two previous waves offers several insights into what to expect from the current wave.

Several important factors inform this analysis:

- The average period between infection and death - around 18 days, with an overall range of 2-3 weeks;

- The mortality rate, historically fluctuating between 1.55 and 2.15 percent (see;

- The slope of the previous waves.

The chart above shows the first wave rising over a period of three weeks, plateauing with a daily case rate of about 30,000; the second wave lasted twice as long, peaking at over 65,000 new cases per day. New cases dropped off, falling below 40,000, until the third wave of uncontrolled spread commenced around October 5.

The third wave has already been underway considerably longer than the entire first wave, and the first phase of wave 3 has only just ended (if we're lucky). During those recent weeks, daily new cases have more than tripled from the post-second wave low of 35,000, and more than double the second-wave peak of around 65,000 - with no end in sight.

The analysis presents possible scenarios, moving forward:

Scenario 1: The third wave recovery will be as rapid as the first wave recovery was. Given the longer recovery period of the second wave, this seems unlikely.

Scenario 2: If the third wave recovery cannot feasibly match that of the first, perhaps it might at least go no longer than that of the second. This, too, seems unlikely; as the chart demonstrates, new cases are erupting as runaway exponential growth.

Scenario 3: COVID is scaling, and a daily case rate of more than 320,000 by Christmas seems not only possible but probable; accounting for fluctuations in the fatality rate, the daily death rate will rise to between 4,900 and 5,500.

And two potential super-spreader events hover in the weeks ahead: Thanksgiving and Christmas, bolstering the likelihood that Scenario 3 is the reality facing the United States.

The prospects for a happy new year are bleak.

Jerald Hughes is Chair of the Department of Information Systems, University of Texas RGV.

Scott Robinson is CIO of GlenMill Science and a data scientist in Louisville, Kentucky.

All opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect those of University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, or any organizations of which either is a member.

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