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Updated at 12:10 p.m. ET
The United States could have prevented approximately 36,000 deaths from COVID-19 if extensive social distancing measures had been put in place a week earlier in March, according to an analysis by Columbia University.
Stressing the importance of an aggressive response to the coronavirus, the study found that the United States could have avoided at least 700,000 fewer infections if the actions that started on March 15 had actually started on March 8.
The United States currently has more than 1.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, and more than 93,000 people have died from the disease, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
In the analysis, the researchers applied transmission models to data from the actual course of the pandemic, county by county, in the United States – the most affected nation in the world. The main focus of the study was the period from March 15 to May 3, when states and counties in the United States implemented “measures to strengthen social distancing and restrict personal contact.”
And if the restrictions had come into effect in the United States two weeks earlier, the researchers said, nearly 54,000 people would still be alive and almost a million cases of COVID-19 would have been prevented.
The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11 – an act that had been widely anticipated. Two days later, President Trump declared a national emergency in the United States, but it took even more time for dozens of American states to impose social distancing and close the business as usual.
If the United States had been able to follow social distancing restrictions to the same degree on March 8, the study found, it would have greatly reduced the impact of respiratory disease – and early action would have made a big difference. in densely populated and most affected areas. areas like New York.
The newspaper said that if the restrictions had taken effect on March 8, the New York metropolitan area would have had at least 209,987 fewer cases and 17,514 fewer deaths.
The study was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Morris-Singer Foundation. The researchers’ results are in “pre-press,” which means their article has not been peer-certified.
The new analysis reveals that social distancing has been effective in slowing the spread of the virus, and examines what could happen if states or local governments lifted these orders too soon – or waited too long to reimpose them.
Researchers say that once counties and states reopen their economies and lift restrictions, the number of daily confirmed cases will likely continue to decline for almost two weeks. This residual benefit from the cessation, combined with the delay between COVID-19 infection and confirmation of the diagnosis, creates “a false signal that the pandemic is well under control,” they write.
Citing persistent vulnerability to the virus, researchers say their models describe “a strong resurgence of cases and deaths … peaking in early and mid-June”, even if restrictions are re-imposed just two or three weeks after being relaxed. .
“We have to be so reactive and attentive to what’s going on,” says NPR researcher Jeffrey Shaman, “and able to quickly identify and respond quickly to a resurgence of infection in the community.” and have the will to do it and don’t repeat our mistakes. ”
On Wednesday, the 50 states at least partially relaxed restrictions on businesses, with a mix of policies allowing restaurants or stores to welcome customers. Many states still have home support orders or other social distancing policies in effect, and some cities and counties maintain closure orders.
Nurith Aizenman of NPR contributed to this report.