Academic Studies: Staying at Home Saved Millions of Lives Globally

Separate coronavirus studies from the University of California at Berkeley and Imperial College London published June 8 in the journal Nature show the life and health-saving value of domestic stay-at-home orders, global lockdowns, and other measures.

June 15, 2020, 8:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid


Coronavirus Protest

mikeledray / Shutterstock

"Shutdown orders prevented about 60 million novel coronavirus infections in the United States and 285 million in China, according to a research study published Monday that examined how stay-at-home orders and other restrictions limited the spread of the contagion," report Joel Achenbach and Laura Meckler for The Washington Post.

“Without these policies employed, we would have lived through a very different April and May,” said Solomon Hsiang, director of the Global Policy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley, and the leader of the research team that surveyed how six countries — China, the United States, France, Italy, Iran and South Korea — responded to the pandemic.

One striking finding: School closures did not show a significant effect, although the authors cautioned that their research on this was not conclusive and the effectiveness of school closures requires further study.

As of June 11, global coronavirus infections exceed 7.5 million, according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard, with almost 27 percent, over 2 million, in the U.S.

According to Berkeley News, it is "the first peer-reviewed analysis of local, regional and national policies" enacted to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

Distinguishing confirmed infections from total infections

"The researchers concluded that the six countries collectively managed to avert 62 million test-confirmed infections," add Achenbach and Meckle.

Because most people who are infected never get tested or diagnosed with covid-19, the actual number of cases that were averted is much higher — about 530 million in the six countries, the Berkeley researchers estimated. They estimated that the United States, had it not imposed shutdowns and other measures, would have seen an additional 4.8 million diagnosed infections and 60 million actual infections [by April 6].

U.S. lives saved

Unlike the Imperial College London study, the Berkeley study doesn't estimate lives saved. Using their 4.8 million diagnosed infections estimate and multiplying it by the confirmed COVID-19 case fatality rate in the U.S. of 5.55% (on June 11) = 264,000 American lives were saved. Current lives lost in the U.S. as of June 11 is almost 114,000, according to Johns Hopkins.

“The last several months have been extraordinarily difficult, but through our individual sacrifices, people everywhere have each contributed to one of humanity’s greatest collective achievements,” Hsiang told the UC Berkeley journal.

“I don’t think any human endeavor has ever saved so many lives in such a short period of time. There have been huge personal costs to staying home and canceling events, but the data show that each day made a profound difference. By using science and cooperating, we changed the course of history.”

European lives saved

"A separate study from epidemiologists at Imperial College London estimated the shutdowns saved about 3.1 million lives in 11 European countries, including 500,000 in the United Kingdom, and dropped infection rates by an average of 82 percent, sufficient to drive the contagion well below epidemic levels," add Achenbach and Meckle of the Post.

"In the UK, that amounted to lowering the all-important reproduction number of the virus, R, from 3.8 to 0.63," wrote the Guardian's science editor, Ian Sample. "In 11 countries from France and Germany to Spain and Italy, lockdowns pushed the R value below one, meaning the epidemics went into decline."

Avoiding shutdown costs

"Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Health Security, said in an email that these new reports show the effectiveness of shutdowns," note Achenbach and Meckle.

But she said the economic and social harms of these efforts are considerable, and so societies at this point need to transition to a more focused strategy built around testing, contact tracing and isolation of covid-19 patients.

Those three public health strategies are key to reopening the economy without having to resort to the more costly and disruptive shutdowns noted below by Catherine Ho in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Warnings about reopening too soon

In California, which shut down on March 19, "the state would have seen about 1.7 million more cases than the actual 16,500 cases in the state on April 6,reported Ho on the UC Berkeley research.

The findings, which lend credence to the idea that shelter-in-place policies help prevent the spread of the virus, come as California and many other states are moving forward with plans to reopen businesses, schools, restaurants and other public spaces. That may undo some of the progress achieved by shelter-in-place policies.

“The shelter in place was kind of a bold experiment that appears to have been dramatically successful,” said Dr. Robert Siegel, an infectious disease expert at Stanford. “Opening up is another experiment and we don’t know the result. But it certainly poses a risk that reversing the strict shelter-in-place policies could result in more infections.”

Projected lives yet to lose

The U.S. death toll on June 11 is nearly 114,000, according to Johns Hopkins. "An updated report by a research team headed by a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor forecasts the nation’s COVID-19 death toll will hit 130,000 by July 4," reports MassLive on June 10.

The IHME model from the University of Washington, used by the White House Coronovirus Task Force, projects almost 170,000 total U.S. lives lost by Oct. 1. Ashish Jha, the head of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told CNN in an interview on June 10 that without drastic action, "it’s reasonable to expect that we’re going to hit 200,000 deaths sometime during the month of September,” reported Reuters.

A message to conservatives

Perhaps the best write-up on the new research comes from Henry Olsen, a conservative columnist for The Washington Post, referenced somewhat unfavorably in the second paragraph of an earlier post. "From the beginning of the pandemic, many conservatives have argued that the lockdowns were an overreaction to the novel coronavirus and that they are causing unnecessary economic pain," begins Olsen in his June 9 column.

The United States implemented its measures early enough that its health systems were never overwhelmed like those in Italy and Spain. Spain’s confirmed case fatality rate is 9.4 percent, and Italy’s is 14.4 percent. Had the U.S. fatality rate risen to Italy’s level because of hospital overcrowding, more than 691,000 more people would have died

Some would argue that hospitals in the New York metropolitan area were overwhelmed. New York has a case fatality rate (CFR) of 5.4%, lower than the nation's, according to the COVID Exit Strategy, but other hard-hit states have rates higher than Europe's. The CFRs for Michigan, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are 16.8%, 15.2%, and 13%, respectively, on June 11.

The last word goes to Olsen:

Conservatives who support the reopenings now should accept the obvious. The lockdowns were necessary, and they worked. Millions of Americans who would have died or lost a loved one are thankful that they did.

Monday, June 8, 2020 in The Washington Post

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