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Earlier Lockdowns Could Have Saved 54,000 U.S. Lives, New Study Says

The study from Columbia University epidemiologists shows the fatal results of the American government’s delay in responding to the pandemic.

"Stay Home Save Lives" sign encouraging quarantine from local authorities during an outbreak of coronavirus, at the Great Neck Long Island Railroad train station in New York, March 17, 2020. (Photo by Morse Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
"Stay Home Save Lives" sign encouraging quarantine from local authorities during an outbreak of coronavirus, at the Great Neck Long Island Railroad train station in New York, March 17, 2020. (Photo by Morse Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

If the U.S. began stay-at-home and social distancing orders just two weeks earlier, 83% of the coronavirus deaths confirmed by early May could have been avoided, according to a new study from Columbia University researchers. That means 54,000 fewer Americans would have died.

The number of Americans who died of COVID-19 as of May 3 was just above 65,000, according to the study. The country’s fatalities are now about 95,000. 

“It’s a big, big difference. That small moment in time, catching it in that growth phase, is incredibly critical in reducing the number of deaths,” lead researcher Dr. Jeffrey Shaman told the New York Times. Shaman is an epidemiologist at Columbia University. The study was supported with funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Shaman and his fellow researchers used infectious disease modeling to make their predictions, measuring how social distancing that started March 15 slowed the spread of COVID-19. The New York Times reported that researchers then modeled “what would have happened if those same changes had taken place one or two weeks earlier and estimated the spread of infections and deaths until May 3.”

If people had stayed home and reduced contact with others starting one week earlier, the researchers estimated that 36,000 lives could have been saved by May 3. If the U.S. had started two weeks earlier, they estimated 54,000 lives could have been saved.

The study, published on May 20, has not yet been peer-reviewed. It has been widely shared by doctors and public health experts to remind people that social distancing continues to be imperative in fighting the coronavirus outbreak, even as all 50 states have reopened or eased restrictions in the past two weeks. Vox estimates that as of May 17, only 13 states had actually met CDC guidelines for reopening.

As of May 22, more than 95,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. The U.S. has the highest number of confirmed cases in the world by far—nearly 1.6 million cases of the global total 5.1 million. Russia ranks second in terms of confirmed cases with a little over 326,000 infections. The huge disparity between the top two countries shows how out of control the outbreak in the U.S. has been, which many experts attribute to the federal government’s reluctance to acknowledge the severity of the disease. American officials continued to delay instituting lockdowns despite the fact that countries like Italy and South Korea had already been shut down for weeks.

On March 9, President Trump tweeted, “Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!” Four days later, he declared a national emergency.

On May 11, after more than 80,000 Americans had died, Trump said “we have prevailed” against the virus. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health testified before Congress the next day, saying the actual death toll in the U.S. is likely higher than that, and warned senators: “If you think that we have it completely under control, we don’t.” 

RELATED: Dr. Fauci Warns Against Needless “Suffering And Death” If The Country Reopens Too Quickly

On May 20, groups like the Center for Popular Democracy, MoveOn and Indivisible held a National Day of Mourning to mark deaths in the U.S. from coronavirus and hold elected officials accountable. Activists drove a 200-car funeral procession from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s house to the White House, where people eulogized loved ones who died from COVID-19 and others lined up body bags in a visual protest. The groups took similar actions across 20 states.

Correction: A previous version of this article said the Columbia University study measured the impacts of social distancing on transmission rates in the U.S. starting on March 13. The study started measuring the impact on March 15. This article has been updated.