May 21, 2020

If the United States had implemented social distancing measures on March 8 instead of March 15, about 36,000 fewer Americans would have died from the new coronavirus, according to new estimates published Wednesday by Columbia University disease modelers. 

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US Covid-19 cases surpass 1.5M, death toll tops 93K

The new estimates come as U.S. officials as of Thursday morning had reported 1,559,300 cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus—up from 1,536,400 cases as of Wednesday morning.

As of Thursday morning, officials also had reported a total of 93,408 U.S. deaths linked to the new coronavirus—up from 91,937 deaths reported as of Wednesday morning.

Social distancing sooner would have prevented 36K deaths

Columbia University epidemiologists based their new projections on an analysis of infectious disease modeling data from March 15—when federal, state, and local governments implemented wide-ranging measures to slow the new coronavirus' spread—through early May. The researchers examined the virus' transmission within and between U.S. counties as well as related deaths to show how the virus spread across the country and killed Americans over a seven-week period. The researchers also modeled what would have happened if the United States had imposed the wide-ranging social distancing measures on March 8—one week before March 15.

According to the researchers, if the United States had imposed those measures—which included a federal warning against large gatherings, health screenings at airports, and state of emergency declarations by governors and mayors—a week earlier, about 36,000 fewer Americans would have died from the new coronavirus from March 15 through early May. Under that scenario, about 40% of the deaths linked to the new coronavirus to date wouldn't have occurred, the Washington Post reports.

The researchers found even fewer Americans would have died if the United States had moved to slow the virus' spread on March 1. For instance, the researchers estimated that 54,000 fewer Americans would have died if the United States had implemented sweeping social distancing measures on March 1—meaning about 83% of U.S. deaths linked to the new coronavirus to date would have been prevented if the United Stated had acted two weeks sooner.

According to the New York Times, the findings show how easily the new coronavirus can spread and cause uncontrolled outbreaks if officials don't intervene with measures to monitor infections and suppress new spikes in cases.

Jeffrey Shaman, an environmental health sciences professor at Columbia University, said, "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."

White House spokesperson Judd Deere in a statement to the Post said Trump administration officials made the best decisions they could regarding measures to mitigate the virus' spread with the information they had available to them at the time.

"What would have saved lives is if China had been transparent and the World Health Organization had fulfilled its mission" regarding the new coronavirus, Deere said. "What did save American lives is the bold leadership of President Trump."

Administration officials noted the federal government imposed restrictions on travelers from China in January and Europe in mid-March, which they said helped to curb the virus' spread to the United States.

CDC releases more detailed guidelines for safely reopening businesses

Meanwhile, as states continue moving to reopen nonessential businesses and ease social distancing measures throughout the United States, CDC this week "quietly" released more detailed guidelines outlining steps officials and businesses should take while doing so, Politico reports.  

The new, 60-page guidance document is more extensive than the initial guidelines CDC released last week—with new, specific recommendations for reopening childcare centers, businesses, public transit, schools, and restaurants.

For instance, the new guidance includes recommendations on how public transit can promote social distancing by using floor decals or colored tape to ensure people stay six feet apart from each other. In addition, the new guidance suggests that restaurants should ensure they're implementing measures to keep customers six feet apart from each other. For schools to reopen, CDC in the new guidelines recommends implementing daily temperature screenings, having children eat meals in their classrooms rather than the cafeteria, and spacing desks six feet apart, among other suggestions. According to Politico, the guidance does not include any recommendations for reopening faith-based organizations, such as churches.

The new guidelines also include extensive information on how federal and state governments can help contain the new coronavirus' spread by using contact tracing and monitoring outbreaks of Covid-19.

CDC in the new guidance states, "Extensive, rapid, and widely available Covid-19 testing is essential."

A CDC spokesperson told Politico that the agency issued the new guidance on Sunday as an update to the initial guidance that CDC had released last week (Glanz/Robertson, New York Times, 5/20; Armus, "Morning Mix," Washington Post, 5/21; Cancryn, Politico, 5/20; Meckler/Weiner, Washington Post, 5/19; Rummler, Axios, 5/20; Stobbe, Associated Press, 5/20; New York Times, 5/21).

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