Experts say tens of millions were saved from COVID-19 because of government shutdown orders

A new research study published by the scientific journal Nature on June 8 reports that shutdown orders in the United States probably prevented tens of millions of COVID-19 infections. 

The study estimates that if there had been no shutdowns or shelter-in-place orders, the U.S. would have seen an additional 4.8 million people test positively for COVID-19. But because most infected individuals are never tested or are even aware they have COVID-19, the researchers say the number of additional infections would have been closer to 60 million people. 

The study used an “econometric” model to do its research. This technique “aims to measure the total magnitude of the effect of changes in policy, without requiring explicit prior information about fundamental epidemiological parameters or mechanisms, many of which remain uncertain in the current pandemic,” according to the study. 

Using the econometric technique to study economic activity from Jan. 16-April 6, the study hypothesized how 1,717 policy changes—including stay-at-home orders, business closures, and travel bans—affected the spread of COVID-19. According to a press release, the research team found that home isolation, business closures, and lockdowns produced the most evident benefits of the policies studied. 

Critics have wondered whether the 60-plus days of sheltering-in-place in most cities around the U.S. could go to waste, with fears of economies opening up too soon or a second wave of the coronavirus on the horizon. As of June 8, the U.S. has about 2 million tested COVID-19 infections. If the Nature study is correct, a lack of preventative action could have resulted in twice as many. More likely, the U.S. could have seen a pandemic 30 times worse than it did. 

“Without these policies employed, we would have lived through a very different April and May,” Solomon Hsiang, director of the Global Policy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley, told the Washington Post

China, the U.S., France, Italy, Iran, and South Korea were all surveyed. Hsiang said before governments imposed shutdowns, the number of COVID-19 infections was doubling daily in these countries. 

Results showed the potential impact for each nation:

  • China: 37 million more confirmed cases and 285 million total infections 
  • South Korea: 11.5 million more confirmed cases and 38 million total infections 
  • Italy: 2.1 million more confirmed cases and 49 million total infections
  • Iran: 5 million more confirmed cases and 54 million total infections 
  • France: 1.4 million more confirmed cases and 5 million total infections
  • United States: 4.8 million more confirmed cases and 60 million total infections

Cumulatively, shutdowns prevented more than 500 million total COVID-19 infections across all six countries, according to the study.

“The last several months have been extraordinarily difficult, but through our individual sacrifices, people everywhere have each contributed to one of humanity’s greatest collective achievements,” Hsiang said in the press release. “I don’t think any human endeavor has ever saved so many lives in such a short period of time. There have been huge personal costs to staying home and canceling events, but the data show that each day made a profound difference. By using science and cooperating, we changed the course of history.”

Sources: Nature, Washington Post, UC-Berkeley

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