Study: 36,000 American Lives Would Have Been Saved if White House Acted One Week Earlier

Research from Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health looks at the timing of the imposition of public health control measures, at the start of the pandemic and in the present if infections increase, to project lives saved or lost.

4 minute read

May 26, 2020, 7:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid


Anna Hoychuk / Shutterstock

At a White House Coronavirus Task Force press briefing on March 16, President Trump announced "new guidelines for every American to follow over the next 15 days as we combat the virus" and released a two-page advisory document, "The President's Coronavirus Guidelines for America [pdf]" that served as a signal to governors and state and county health officers that they needed to take action to keep their residents safe if they hadn't already done so.

A week later, after 535 Americans had succumbed to COVID-19, the U.S. surgeon general announced during the task force meeting, "I want America to understand this week it's going to get bad." And it did, particularly in places like New York, New Jersey and New Orleans.

As of May 23, the U.S. leads the world in coronavirus cases and deaths, with almost 1.7 million cases and over 98,000 deaths compared with over 5.4 million global cases and nearly 344,000 global deaths. Just over 1,000 Americans died of COVID-19 on May 22.

"If the United States had begun imposing social distancing measures one week earlier than it did in March, about 36,000 fewer people would have died in the coronavirus outbreak, according to new estimates from Columbia University disease modeler," write James Glanz and 

Pandemic not under control

In response to a question by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow on May 21 to help visualize the "quantitative difference" that acting just a few days earlier makes, Shaman, who directs the Climate and Health Program, uses the example of an invasive lily in a pond.

"When you're dealing with the growth of a virus in a fully susceptible population, it's going through a doubling process – it's growing exponentially...They seem to start very small and insignificant...One of my favorite [examples] is an invasive lily in a pond and every day the number of lilies doubles. By day 30, the entire pond is covered in lilies. The question is, 'on what day was it half-way covered?'

"The answer, day 29, just the day before, because it is a doubling process."

Shaman warns against complacency as we move into summer because the virus may be seasonal and less transmissible during summer. He emphasizes the importance of keeping the infection rate, the number of new cases daily, low, until a vaccine and/or effective therapeutics are developed.

Sen Pei and Sasikiran Kandula, both research scientists at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, are co-authors of the research which is awaiting peer review.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020 in The New York Times

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