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Starting coronavirus lockdowns just 1 week earlier could have saved 36,000 lives

Published May 22nd, 2020 5:22PM EDT
Coronavirus deaths
Image: Braulio Jatar/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

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  • The US is closing in on a grim COVID-19 milestone, approaching 100,000 coronavirus deaths since the outbreak of the pandemic that has infected more than 1.5 million Americans.
  • Researchers at Columbia University have produced a model showing what would have happened if lockdowns around the country had started just 1 week earlier. No surprise, thousands of coronavirus deaths here could have been avoided.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the response in the US to the COVID-19 crisis is just how fractured it’s been on a national level, such that some states took action earlier than others, some embarked on stricter mitigation practices, guidance has seemed contradictory at times from health agencies, and each state has been on its own lockdown schedule. Now that we’ve come out the other side of at least the first phase of the crisis, with all 50 states now having reopened to some degree, everyone is taking stock about what comes next — and also assessing how we got here in the first place.

One thing we do now know, according to a new analysis from researchers at Columbia University: Some 36,000 coronavirus deaths in the US could have been avoided if we’d have started lockdowns just one week earlier. You know, the same lockdowns that caused such an outcry around the country and sparked protests in the name of freedom.

“We find significant reductions of the basic reproductive numbers (of the coronavirus) in major metropolitan areas in association with social distancing and other control measures,” the researchers write. “Counterfactual simulations indicate that, had these same control measures been implemented just 1-2 weeks earlier, a substantial number of cases and deaths could have been averted.” Specifically, they continue, on the national level we could have avoided 61.6% of reported infections and 55% of reported deaths as of May 3 if the same control measures had been implemented just one week earlier.

Continuing along these lines, though, here’s the bit of hindsight that should anger you even more, based on the researchers’ modeling. If cities and states around the US had started locking down and imposing limits on social contact on March 1 — which is about two weeks earlier than the first Americans started staying home as a result of the coronavirus — most of the coronavirus deaths in the US (83%) could have been avoided altogether.

National leaders, of course, painted a too-rosy picture at the time instead of springing into action to contain the virus earlier. “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 leader of the research team, told The New York Times.

The researchers show that by the time stay-at-home orders began to be implemented around the US in March, around 28,000 people had already been infected by the coronavirus. Because the US was still sorely lacking on the testing and contact tracing fronts, however, just 99 confirmed cases were known to be in the US by mid-March.

President Trump implemented a travel ban into the US from Europe that went into effect on March 13. That was one of the first moments when everyone in the US realized how serious the crisis was, and one that people could no longer ignore. By that point, however, the trends were already baked in, and coronavirus deaths in the US went on to spike from there.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.