50,000 Americans would still be alive if social distancing had begun just one week sooner

In any contagious disease there are really only two steps that can be taken in advance of finding a vaccine or treatment: 1) slow down the spread, 2) test and trace. Both of these steps are vital. It’s impossible to determine the extent of an outbreak without testing. It’s impossible to adequately test and trace without using social distancing to slow the spread. Social distancing really is a blunt instrument, but it’s absolutely necessary in the race to save lives.

That’s why the results of a new study from Columbia University are completely unsurprising, but still absolutely shocking. That study suggests that had the United States engaged in widespread social distancing measures just one week sooner, it could have saved the lives of over half the Americans who have died so far from COVID-19. This is far from the first time that this has been pointed out. The whole reason that Americans have spent the last three months staring at exponential graphs is that small changes early in an epidemic can have big outcomes down the line. Still, the black and white numbers from Columbia serve to underline that stark truth: It’s not just that over 95,000 Americans are dead. It’s that most of them died needlessly.

A prompt, vigorous federal response to the outbreak in China, one that included preparing tests, guidelines, and a tough national response before the first death occurred in the United States, might have seen the nation through the crisis with the skill shown in nations like South Korea, Taiwan, or New Zealand. Japan has a third of the U.S. population, but it has 100 times fewer cases of COVID-19, and 125 times fewer deaths. That’s despite having more cases sooner and having greater contact with the original hot zone in China.

The tragedy in the United States wasn’t one decision made on one day—it was a rolling catastrophe. Not only did Trump fail to institute strong federal guidelines at any point, but again and again governors made the decision to wait until there were clear signals of a growing outbreak within their states before taking first steps. America never went into the kind of lockdown seen in many nations. And, of course, Trump never instituted any sort of central policy or coordinated federal testing.

Instead, even as the CDC and NIH were handing out belated guidelines, Trump was sneering at those suggestions and attacking governors who dared to actually implement what federal agencies were saying. The alternative suggested in the Columbia paper isn’t a best case scenario, it’s what should have been the worse case. It should have been the very least that could be expected.

“Specifically, nationwide, 61.6% of reported infections and 55.0% of
reported deaths as of May 3, 2020 could have been avoided if the same control
measures had been implemented just one week earlier.”

That’s over 50,000 Americans who have already died because Trump couldn’t be dragged away from the golf course just one week earlier. Unfortunately, that number will only grow.

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