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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Sadly, the more we learn about the coronavirus pandemic, on both the medical and economic sides, the worse the best-case scenarios become.

Why it matters: Some readers tell us they think virus coverage has been overly dramatic. So we wanted to share with you the consensus of what the most clear-eyed, serious, optimistic people are saying, as a way to focus our minds. 

Tens of thousands of Americans die, we have double-digit unemployment for months, countless businesses die, retirements are wiped out, and the nation is saddled with once unimaginable debt.

  • That, folks, is the best case scenario we're facing.
  • That's if we're lucky — and doesn't even mention the lost graduations, honeymoons, weddings, and other important missed milestones.

Here's an example: A survey of epidemiology experts in academia, government and industry, posted by a scholar at UMass Amherst and reported by FiveThirtyEight, predicted that the number of cases reported by the end of this month would most likely fall somewhere between 10,500 and 81,500.

  • The survey was taken Monday and Tuesday.
  • We’re already right around 20,000 cases, so the lower end of those estimates is out the window.

The same survey anticipates about 200,000 deaths in the U.S this year, but experts have established a range that stretches from as few as 19,000 deaths to as many as 1.2 million.

  • A true best-case scenario would look a lot like the response in places like Singapore and South Korea, which were able to quickly “flatten the curve” and bring the number of new cases under control.
  • But the U.S. simply has not been doing the things that worked in those countries, so whatever our best-case scenario may be, it’s not that good.

Public health: The optimist's scenario involves a longer outbreak, but with fewer cases at a time.

  • We could use some pleasant surprises. Maybe experimental treatments will turn out to work. Maybe warmer weather will suppress the virus’ spread more than we expected. 
  • Those aren’t ridiculous possibilities, but it’s a fair amount of wishful thinking when all we have so far is an exponentially growing number of cases, and the certainty that we are under-counting those cases while they spread.

Economic havoc: Even under the optimist's scenario, the fallout for jobs and businesses will long outlast the medical calamity.

  • You know things are bad when CNBC reports: "Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin promised Wednesday that the U.S. will not have a 20% unemployment rate."
  • Mnuchin was dialing back a theoretical possibility without a federal rescue package — what he now calls "just a mathematical statement" — that he had floated in a closed-door meeting of Republican lawmakers.
  • Goldman Sachs said last Sunday that the S&P 500 could hit 2,450 in the next three months. That turned out to be the optimist's scenario. On Friday, the index closed below that level.
  • Axios Markets Editor Dion Rabouin reports that there's no precedent for this kind of hit to small businesses. So banks have no real way to model it — one reason that many estimates seem too rosy, and that the government may be underestimating the needed size of the fiscal response.

Duration: The stock market plummeted Monday after President Trump said the crisis could last until July, August or longer.

  • That turned out to be the optimist's scenario.
  • The next day, the N.Y. Times reported on a 103-page HHS response plan, dated three days before Trump spoke, that said the pandemic "will last 18 months or longer" and could include "multiple waves."

The bottom line: The optimist's scenario has summer as the light at the end of the tunnel. But with every day and every new data point, the upside scenario gets dimmer — and more distant.

— Courtenay Brown, Dion Rabouin and Bryan Walsh contributed reporting.

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Go deeper

Updated Oct 7, 2020 - Health

World coronavirus updates

Expand chart
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

New Zealand now has active no coronavirus cases in the community after the final six people linked to the Auckland cluster recovered, the country's Health Ministry confirmed in an email Wednesday.

The big picture: The country's second outbreak won't officially be declared closed until there have been "no new cases for two incubation periods," the ministry said. Auckland will join the rest of NZ in enjoying no domestic restrictions from late Wednesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, declaring that NZ had "beat the virus again."

Coronavirus cases fell by 15% this week

Expand chart
Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon, Sara Wise/Axios

New coronavirus infections fell by almost 15% over the past week, continuing a steady downward trend.

Why it matters: The standard caveats still apply — progress can always fall apart, the U.S. is climbing down from a very high number of cases, and this is far from over. But this is undeniably good news. Things are getting better.

Updated 12 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Teens and adults missed 37 million vaccinations during COVID — Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — Annual COVID vaccine preferable to boosters, says Pfizer CEO.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults — Beijing officials urge COVID-19 "emergency mode" before Winter Olympics.
  5. Variant tracker