Though they're now currently being lifted despite the presence of new infections in many parts of the country, public health orders to enforce social distancing have saved an untold number of lives and prevented around 530 million COVID-19 transmissions, according to a new study out of UC Berkeley.
The study, the first of its kind in this pandemic to be fully peer-reviewed, analyzed the rates of infection in five countries where the coronavirus appeared between January and April, and looked at the likely impacts of local, regional and national containment and mitigation policies. The study looked at the extraordinary lockdown measures imposed in China, South Korea, Italy, Iran, France and the United States and it estimates that over 500 million infections were prevented across all six countries as of April 6, which is when the study ended. Given the almost two months since that date, further study might raise that number hugely — and it should strike some fear in us as states gradually reopen businesses looking toward the second half of this year.
"So many have suffered tragic losses already,” said study lead author Solomon Hsiang, per Bay City News. “And yet, April and May would have been even more devastating if we had done nothing, with a toll we probably can’t imagine.”
The researchers from UC Berkeley’s Global Policy Laboratory stopped short of giving an estimate of lives that were saved, because the death rate from COVID-19 is still not understood and varies from country to country. The death rate also is expected to vary in the hardest hit countries where healthcare systems end up too strained to adequately care for the sick. (The CDC currently is working with an estimated death rate of 0.26%, however Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch recently told the podcast 80,000 Hours that he expects the death rate to shake out somewhere between 0.2% and 1.5% — likely in the middle of that range, so around 0.85%, which would mean by this study's estimates that at least 1.4 million lives were potentially saved, using the CDC's figure, or as many as 4.5 million lives were.)
The study said that the United States potentially prevented 60 million total cases of the coronavirus — or 4.8 million confirmed cases, because the researchers believe the confirmed counts are major undercounts.
The study looked at over 1,700 separate policies and their likely impacts on public health, including sheltering orders, travel bans, and more. They concluded that travel restrictions had less discernible impacts, but self-isolation and economic lockdowns had enormous potential impacts.
Now with greater awareness of the disease and how it's spread, hopefully infections can continue to be mitigated even as cities like Las Vegas reopen to tourism.
"It’s as if the roof was about to fall in, but we caught it before it crushed everyone," says Hsiang, per Bay City News. "It was difficult and exhausting, and we are still holding it up. But by coming together, we did something as a society that nobody could have done alone and which has never been done before."
Here's hoping we keep doing it with some measure of success.
Photo: Kate Trifo