New Study Claims US Might Have Saved 36,000 Lives With Earlier Social Distancing Measures

Columbia University Study

Getty President Donald Trump speaks to the press as he departs the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 21, 2020.

A study from Columbia University “assessing the effects of early non-pharmaceutical interventions” on the COVID-19 pandemic found that 55% of deaths as of May 3, when the death count in America topped 66,000, could have been avoided if the U.S. had imposed social distancing measures one week earlier.

The preprint study, released May 20, has not been peer-reviewed. It estimates that, had measures been put in place on March 8, America would have seen approximately 36,000 fewer deaths between March 15 and May 3. Had those measures been put in place on March 1, the study estimates roughly 54,000 fewer people would have died.

As of March 23, only eight states had issued statewide stay-at-home orders, according to the New York Times.

The study says:

The inference results indicate that the [non-pharmaceutical interventions] varyingly adopted in the US after March 15 have effectively reduced rates of COVID-19 transmission in the focus metropolitan areas. During the initial growth of a pandemic, infections increase exponentially. As a consequence, early intervention and fast response are critical for limiting morbidity and mortality.

The CDC defines non-pharmaceutical interventions, or NPIs, as “actions, apart from getting vaccinated and taking medicine, that people and communities can take to help slow the spread of illnesses like pandemic influenza (flu),” adding, “NPIs are among the best ways of controlling pandemic flu when vaccines are not yet available.”

In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, non-pharmaceutical interventions are defined in part by a previous study published in Nature on May 4. That study evaluates the effect of travel restrictions, contact reductions, early detection and the isolation of cases in China, concluding, “[t]he early detection and isolation of cases was estimated to have prevented more infections than travel restrictions and contact reductions, but combined NPIs achieved the strongest and most rapid effect.” It goes on to say, “[t]he lifting of travel restrictions since February 17, 2020, does not appear to lead to an increase in cases across China if the social distancing interventions can be maintained.”

On January 31, President Donald Trump imposed a travel ban on people coming to the U.S. from China. Subsequent travel bans were placed on Europe and the U.K. In a press briefing on May 20, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said, “[y]eah, you know, the President wants us to start reopening. Travel restrictions are something that, you know, he wants to make sure American lives are protected before those are lifted.” CNBC reported that Trump is currently weighing whether or not to impose a ban on Brazil, whose daily death toll jumped to 1,170 on Tuesday.


The Study Estimates That a ‘Large Resurgence’ of Deaths Will Peak in June if States Reopen

The Columbia University study also ran simulations to estimate the effect of reopening on the death toll. The study found that, if social distancing measures were relaxed in all U.S. counties beginning on May 4, there would likely be a decline of daily confirmed cases in the following two weeks, but that,

[t]his decreasing trend, caused by the NPIs in place prior to May 4, 2020 coupled with the lag between infection acquisition and case confirmation, conveys a false signal that the pandemic is well under control. Unfortunately, due to high remaining population susceptibility, a large resurgence of both cases and deaths follows, peaking in early- and mid-June, despite the resumption of NPI measures 2 or 3 weeks following control relaxation. A one-week further delay to the resumption of control measures results in an average of 214,545 additional confirmed cases and 23,110 deaths nationally by July 1, 2020.

The results of the Columbia University study, which have not been peer-reviewed, are estimates. The study notes that “these counterfactual experiments are based on idealized hypothetical assumptions,” and that, in practice, “initiating and implementing interventions earlier during an outbreak is complicated by factors such as general uncertainty, economic concerns, logistics and the administrative decision process.” It adds, “public compliance with social distancing rules may also lag due to sub-optimal awareness of infection risk. We acknowledge that our counterfactual experiments have simplified these processes.”

States began lifting their restrictions in late April. According to the New York Times, 36 states are now reopening statewide and an additional 10 states are reopening regionally. Only Illinois, Delaware and New Jersey are still shut down. Michigan is “reopening soon.”

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