MADISON (WKOW) -- With more than 200,000 confirmed deaths in the United States related to COVID-19, the coronavirus pandemic is one of the most deadly events ever for Americans.
"Honestly, I'm still a little shocked that it's so bad," infectious diseases expert Ajay Sethi said Tuesday. "It just feels like we got here a little too quickly, and we shouldn't be in this place at all."
Sethi said at the start of the pandemic, 200,000 deaths was on the high end of what experts were predicting for 2020. But Sethi said the lack of a consistent and effective response to the virus meant things escalated more quickly.
"We never had a national response that was strong or that even existed," he said. "We never suppressed the number of cases to the point where we could really make an impact or dent in the epidemic."
With more than three months left in the year, Sethi said the country is going to blow past early death toll predictions.
"It could get to 400,000," Sethi said. "It could get to 300,000, but really, any more deaths is unacceptable."
The figure of 400,000 possible deaths comes from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation model. However, not every scientist thinks the U.S. will hit that number.
"I've seen that projection, but I disagree with that projection," Oguz Alagoz said. Alagoz is a professor of industrial and systems engineering at UW-Madison, and he works on modeling infectious diseases.
He says he's concerned about how high the death toll could rise as the country enters fall and winter, but he thinks the eventual number of deaths will depend on how people act.
"As a community, we will determine the fate of this pandemic," Alagoz said. "If people start relaxing and showing high risk behaviors, I am really worried about the outcomes."
Comparing U.S. death tolls
Even excluding any future deaths, COVID-19 is the second-deadliest illness to affect Americans.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 675,000 Americans died from 1918-1920 during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
The number of coronavirus-related deaths towers over deaths in the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, when the CDC estimated almost 12,500 Americans died.
COVID-19 is also more deadly than the seasonal flu. The CDC estimated around 34,000 Americans died during the 2018-2019 flu season.
What comes next?
Alagoz and Sethi both stressed the importance of COVID-19 precautions like wearing masks, hand washing and physical distancing.
"Facial mask use saves lives," Alagoz said. "Is it going to keep [the pandemic] under complete control? Probably not, but it will certainly help reduce the risk."
Sethi agreed, saying, "I don't know a way out of this unless everybody gets on board with some of the basic things that are going to stop the spread of COVID."
Even with those precautions, Sethi and Alagoz said COVID-19 will continue to spread, so people should prepare for the death toll to continue to rise over future months.