If the United States had implemented social distancing policies just a week sooner, it could have prevented more than half the number of coronavirus deaths and infections, according to new research from Columbia University.
And if the country had locked down two weeks earlier than it did, it could have prevented 84% of deaths and 82% of cases, said the the research team, led by epidemiologist Jeffrey Shaman.
“Our findings underscore the importance of early intervention and aggressive response in controlling the Covid-19 pandemic,” the researchers wrote in the report, published online in the pre-print server MedRxiv.
Their findings have not been reviewed by other experts for accuracy.
The US timeline: The first US case was reported at the end of January. It wasn’t until mid-March that the Trump administration urged Americans to avoid groups and limit travel. That’s also when cities like New York started to close schools.
The study used epidemiologic modeling to gauge transmission rates from March 15 to May 3 and determine the impact social distancing could have.
The first days were crucial. “During the initial growth of a pandemic, infections increase exponentially. As a consequence, early intervention and fast response are critical,” the researchers wrote.
But they admitted it’s also true that they could not account for how people would have responded to earlier policies.
“Public compliance with social distancing rules may also lag due to sub-optimal awareness of infection risk,” they said.
All 50 states are now in some stage of reopening. If local leaders detect a growth in new cases, they should respond quickly, the Columbia team said — a longer response time results in a stronger rebound of infections and death.