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Lockdown Delays Contributed to Massive US Death Toll, Says Modeling, Suggesting Lessons to Be Learned as States Reopen

Implementing social distancing policies two weeks earlier could have saved nearly 54,000 lives, the new study found.

MoveOn members pile white roses on the National Mall to memorialize the tens of thousands of coronavirus deaths in the United States.

MoveOn members pile white roses on the National Mall to memorialize the tens of thousands of coronavirus deaths in the United States. The roses sit at the foot of a large screen displaying a video of President Donald Trump praising his response to the pandemic and a banner on May 13, 2020 in Washington, DC.. (Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for MoveOn)

As U.S. states move to reopen their economies and loosen restrictions put in place to stem the spread of Covid-19, new modeling released Thursday shows a majority of the U.S. deaths thus far from the coronavirus could have been prevented had social distancing policies been implemented more quickly.

The epidemiological modeling (pdf) from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health researchers looked at the virus's national spread through May 3, 2020, at which point deaths had passed 65,000. 

The researchers found nearly 62% of reported infections—703,000 cases—and 55% of deaths—over 35,000 people—could have been avoided if the same control measures implemented mid-March were enacted just one week earlier.

Implementing those measures two weeks earlier, the modeling found, could have led to an 84% reduction in total cases—960,937 cases—and a nearly 83% reduction in deaths—53,990 people.

"Our findings underscore the importance of early intervention and aggressive response in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic," wrote the researchers.

Epidemiologist and corresponding author of the study Jeffrey Shaman spoke with CNN Wednesday about the new study and said that "it has implications going forward."


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While reopening, said Shaman, "we have to maintain control of this virus. And as we loosen these restrictions, it's possible we could have the growth of the virus in a lot of communities if we're not careful—if social distancing practices lapse, if people aren't wearing face masks as they start to go to businesses and restaurants and theaters."

"If we don't monitor this and if we don't recognize it really early and jump on it, it's going to jump out of control again," Shaman said. "We're going to have problems again. We're going to have growth that's beyond our expectations and we're going to see surges of people coming into hospitals again."

The Columbia University Department of Surgery, sharing the New York Times's coverage of the new research, tweeted Thursday: "We must heed our own warnings. Absorb this data. Wear a mask. As states reopen, don't let the nonsense cloud your judgement."

The modeling comes as a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll shows (pdf) that a majority of Americans—77%—say they are concerned about a second wave of Covid infections hitting as states start to reopen this month. While that concern was expressed by most Democrats—93%—55% of Republicans also expressed worries about an upcoming second wave.

The poll also found that 67% of respondents believe it will take more than six months for their lives to return to a sense of normal.

As of this writing, there are over 1.5 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 93,558 Covid deaths in the U.S.

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