Over 59,000 Americans Could Have Been Saved if Social Distancing Started Sooner

New research points to the power of aggressive non-pharmaceutical interventions

Photo by Jordan Hopkins on Unsplash

Nearly eight months into the Covid-19 pandemic, the psychological impacts of social distancing have taken their toll. In Europe, where countries have begun their second wave of coronavirus lockdowns, people are coping with pandemic fatigue. Americans are feeling it too, though lockdowns haven’t yet been implemented in the U.S., despite the average daily case count surpassing 110,000 new cases per day.

It hasn’t been easy. Recent research published in Science Advances, however, is a reminder that sacrificing the ability to socialize and see family and friends pays off in a big way.

In the modeling study, researchers show that the U.S. could have saved 59,000 more people and prevented over a million cases of Covid-19 by May 3 if it had implemented social distancing rules and business closures just two weeks sooner — starting on March 1, 2020, as opposed to March 15, when most restrictions in the U.S. began. Had they started just one week earlier, on March 8, the model suggests that 600,000 cases and 32,000 deaths could have been avoided. The team, led by Sen Pei, PhD, of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, built the model using county-level data on positive cases and death counts collected between February 21 and May 3.

In the early days of the pandemic, experts in the U.S. urged people to socially distance when the government would not speak up. On March 17, Andy Slavitt, MD, the former head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and a group of public health experts urged the country’s 50 governors to “Stay Home and Save Lives.” On March 23, he wrote in the Coronavirus Blog about the Covid-19 response, which included social distancing: “Some things Trump pretends are happening but aren’t… If all of this activity began a month ago many lives would have been saved.” Unfortunately, the president denied the severity of the virus and many people followed his lead. In some places, that denial continues to this day. The consequences have been and will no doubt be grave.

The authors of the paper acknowledge that lockdowns are hard on everyone, but they argue “it is vital to balance the dual ambitions of renewing social and economic activity and avoiding a recrudescence.” They point to South Korea, New Zealand, Vietnam, and Iceland as countries that managed to strike that balance by implementing other methods to contain the virus: specifically, broader testing and contact tracing. This is not news: Scientists in the U.S. have called for these interventions for months.

The White House has not shared any plans to expand testing or contact tracing during the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency. President-elect Joe Biden, in contrast, has laid out a Covid-19 plan that will massively scale up testing and contact tracing. The plan also promotes a more nuanced view of social distancing that could prove crucial to striking the balance that the study authors call for: “Social distancing is not a light switch. It is a dial.” In other words, applying social distancing restrictions that are appropriate to the risk level in an area as determined by scientific evidence. There are 70 days until Trump leaves office and that plan can kick in.

Until then, social distancing across the U.S. remains crucial. The increase in cases per day has risen 64% from the average two weeks ago and is far higher than the average in March and April. There’s no getting back the lives that were lost when the U.S. failed to quickly implement social distancing the first time around, but it isn’t too late to prevent future grief.



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Yasmin Tayag

Yasmin Tayag


Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.