Thousands upon thousands of lives lost to the coronavirus could have been saved had the United States implemented a lockdown just a week before it did, according to new data by Columbia University researchers.
As of Wednesday, May 20, more than 91,000 Americans died from COVID-19, but researchers estimate that nearly 36,000 fewer people would have died by early May if social distancing rules had been announced a week earlier. Some 54,000 people would've been saved if measures were taken two weeks earlier, the New York Times first reported.
"These dramatic reductions of morbidity and mortality due to more timely deployment of control measures highlights the critical need for aggressive, early response to the COVID-19 pandemic," researchers wrote. They say they used coronavirus transmission data from New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Miami to calculate the numbers.
In New York City, the region hardest hit by the disease, a statewide lockdown went into effect on March 22 -- weeks after the first confirmed case was reported there. The first COVID-19 case in the country was reported in Washington state as early as Jan. 20.
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While the researchers acknowledged that the estimates are "based on idealized hypothetical assumptions" and that an earlier lockdown in the U.S. is complicated by factors such as economic concerns and logistics, they also noted that other countries like South Korea and Italy were already responding aggressively to the virus by the end of February.
In response to the research, the White House blamed China, where the novel coronavirus originated, for its lack of transparency at the start of the pandemic and the World Health Organization for the lives that could have been saved.
"What did save American lives is the bold leadership of President Trump, including the early travel restrictions when we had no idea the true level of asymptotic spread and the greatest mobilization of the private sector since World War II to deliver critical supplies to states in need and ramp up testing across the country that has placed us on a responsible path to reopen our country," White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere said in a statement to NBC News.
Due to the lack of widespread testing at the beginning of the pandemic, it's unclear if travel restrictions helped slow down the spread of the virus.
What is certain, according to researchers, is that without greater public awareness, broader testing and contact tracing, a lag between somebody getting infected and a positive result "masks the rebound and exponential growth of COVID-19 until it is well underway."