As the U.S. begins to restart portions of what was daily life before the arrival of the coronavirus, a new model on the virus’s spread estimates that if the country had responded more quickly—even by a single week—in shutting down and social distancing, tens of thousands of lives could have been saved. The Columbia University model shows the importance of timing in containing the exponential growth of a virus; it also implicitly reaffirms the need for decisive leadership from engaged and informed public officials.
As things currently stand, with the U.S. having initiated a shutdown in mid-March, more than 93,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus (though that number is likely higher), out of more than 1.5 million confirmed cases. According to the new model’s tally, if that shutdown had been started a week earlier, the virus’s spread would have been sufficiently curtailed to cut the number of deaths by roughly 36,000 people—more than half of the fatalities recorded through May 3, the timeframe the study examined. If the U.S. had responded two weeks earlier than it did—so on March 1—most of the country’s deaths could have been avoided; 54,000 lives would have been spared, an 83 percent reduction in the death toll.
These numbers will surely be debated, discussed, and dismissed by some, but as we collectively reemerge from isolation, they must help inform our collective decision-making in the months and even years to come. The first time around, in early March, America’s leaders floundered in different ways in the face of the coming pandemic. “Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on,” Trump tweeted on March 9, minimizing the potential impact of the virus. “At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!” A week later, on March 16, the president was telling Americans to stay home to save lives. In New York, the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, didn’t close schools until March 15, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s stay-at-home order wasn’t in place until March 22.
We obviously know much more about the virus now and much more about ourselves: what we’re capable of when faced with individual and collective harm. While there appears to be a summer reprieve coming from isolation and a bulging curve, the Columbia model is a reminder that it’s not just how we respond that matters—it’s when.