New research published Wednesday revealed that the vast majority, as much as 90%, of U.S. deaths from the coronavirus outbreak could have been avoided if strict social distancing measures were imposed just two weeks earlier—the latest damning rebuke of President Donald Trump's mismanagement of the crisis and a warning to those still skeptical of the restrictions.
Britta Jewell and Nicholas Jewell, epidemiologists at Imperial College and University of California, Berkeley, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that an estimated 90% of deaths from the coronavirus may have been avoided if the U.S. government had called for schools to close and Americans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people by March 2, when 11 people in the U.S. had died of the disease.
Instead, the White House waited until March 16 to do so. After the social distancing order, the number of cases and deaths began to rise rapidly across the country, now topping 26,000 just a month later.
Ordering Americans to stay home as much as possible and calling for businesses to close even one week later, the epidemiologists estimate, would have cut deaths by about 60%, the epidemiologists said.
In addition to the late response by the Trump administration, which is now pushing to reopen state and city economies as soon as possible, governors and mayors have taken action to slow the spread of the coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, at different rates—with eight states still refusing to implement social-distancing rules.
Author Anand Giridharadas tweeted that the researchers' findings were the "devastating" result of the right wing's ideological attack on government and the Republican-led antagonism of collection action.
This is devastating.
And this is what happens when, for a generation, the armies of greed tar the very concept of government.
Donald Trump’s inaction is the culmination of an era that has venerated what we do alone and smeared what we do together. https://t.co/99ny0BioBe
— Anand Giridharadas (@AnandWrites) April 15, 2020
"The point here is not to cast blame on mayors or governors for the timing of what were difficult decisions for both public health and the economy, but rather, to alert cities and states where full social distancing measures are not in place that hesitation can come at a very high cost," wrote Jewell and Jewell.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, has not yet issued a stay-at-home order. More than 1,800 cases have been reported in the state and at least 44 people have died. If Reynolds were to order social distancing in the state immediately, the researchers found, the number of deaths could remain relatively flat instead of eventually reaching into the hundreds, as they are currently expected to.
Officials in Iowa—as well as Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Utah, all of which are Republican-controlled and have not issued stay-at-home orders—need only compare the data in states that have taken action at different times to see proof of the researchers' theory, the authors wrote:
The recent divergence of epidemics in Kentucky and Tennessee shows that even a few days' difference in action can have a big effect. Kentucky's social distancing measure was issued March 26; Tennessee waited until the last minute of March 31. As Kentucky moved to full statewide measures in reducing infection growth, Tennessee was usually less than a week behind. But as of Friday, the result was stark: Kentucky had 1,693 confirmed cases (379 per million population); Tennessee had 4,862 (712 per million).
The op-ed echoes warnings issued in early March from healthcare workers and the public in European countries, where the outbreak was already spreading rapidly at the time.
"We were so complacent that even when people with coronavirus symptoms started turning up, we wrote each off as a nasty case of the flu," wrote an anonymous physician in Western Europe in a Newsweek column on March 11. "We kept the economy going, pointed fingers at China and urged tourists to keep traveling. And the majority of us told ourselves and each other: this isn't so bad. We're young, we're fit, we'll be fine even if we catch it. Fast-forward two months, and we are drowning."
Jewell and Jewell suggested that state and local GOP officials who continue to sow doubt about the need for social distancing should examine the data out of more fast-acting states like California, which imposed the country's first state-wide stay-at-home order on March 19.
Officials including President Donald Trump, who falsely claimed this week he has "total" authority to reopen state and city economies, must also consider the research when deciding when to lift social-distancing orders.
"Decisions about the timing of imposing social distancing are now largely behind us," wrote Jewell and Jewell. "The next critical decisions will center on when we begin easing stay-at-home policies. Getting that wrong will lead to second wave of infections and a return to lockdowns. We can't afford to repeat the same mistakes."