Researchers Say U.S. Delays in Restricting Social Contact Cost at Least 36,000 Lives

New research shows that thousands of lives would have been saved if states had issued lockdowns and social distancing guidelines just a week earlier.

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A new study shows that if the U.S. had enforced social distancing guidelines one week earlier in March, around 36,000 fewer people would have died from COVID-19.

The research comes from Columbia University disease modelers who say if the country had started issuing lockdowns on March 1, two weeks before many stay-at-home orders had taken effect, then about 83 percent of the nation’s deaths so far would have been prevented. If that were the case, 54,000 fewer people would have passed away by early May.

“It’s a big, big difference. That small moment in time, catching it in that growth phase, is incredibly critical in reducing the number of deaths,” Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia and the research team’s leader, told the New York Times.

The data was drawn from infectious disease modeling that measures how social distancing guidelines that began in mid-March curbed the virus’ spread. Shaman’s team focused on how the outcome would have been different if those same guidelines were enforced one or two weeks earlier and calculated the rate of infections and deaths through May 3.

With the findings, researchers have discovered that outbreaks can easily become uncontrollable unless infections are observed closely and contained quickly. When Italy and South Korea began combatting the virus’ spread, Trump didn’t caution the American public to stay at home or avoid crowds, contending that the virus’ risk was low.

“Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on,” Trump tweeted on March 9, indicating that coronavirus wasn’t any more dangerous than the flu. “At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”

Researchers later determined that tens of thousands of people had the virus by then. However, many infections went undetected due to a dearth in widespread testing, at a time when many Americans viewed the virus as nonthreatening to the U.S.

In mid-March, more states moved to restrict social contact, which helped to slow down transmission. But cities with the earliest cases were devastated, with state lockdowns arriving too late. New York City remains one of the hardest-hit cities by coronavirus. Researchers estimated that fewer than 4,300 people would have died if lockdowns had been enforced a week earlier, on March 8.

The findings are only approximations and are based on the theory that millions of people would have changed their behavior more quickly than they did.

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