As U.S. states move to reopen their economies and loosen restrictions put in place to stem the spread of COVID-19, new modeling released Thursday shows a majority of the U.S. deaths thus far from the coronavirus could have been prevented had social distancing policies been implemented more quickly.

The epidemiological modeling (pdf) from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health researchers looked at the virus’s national spread through May 3, 2020, at which point deaths had passed 65,000.

The researchers found nearly 62% of reported infections—703,000 cases—and 55% of deaths — over 35,000 people — could have been avoided if the same control measures implemented mid-March were enacted just one week earlier.

Implementing those measures two weeks earlier, the modeling found, could have led to an 84% reduction in total cases — 960,937 cases — and a nearly 83% reduction in deaths —5 3,990 people.

“Our findings underscore the importance of early intervention and aggressive response in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote the researchers.

Epidemiologist and corresponding author of the study Jeffrey Shaman spoke about the new study and explained that “it has implications going forward.”

“While reopening, we have to maintain control of this virus. And as we loosen these restrictions, it’s possible we could have the growth of the virus in a lot of communities if we’re not careful—if social distancing practices lapse, if people aren’t wearing face masks as they start to go to businesses and restaurants and theaters,” Shaman said. “If we don’t monitor this and if we don’t recognize it really early and jump on it, it’s going to jump out of control again. We’re going to have problems again. We’re going to have growth that’s beyond our expectations and we’re going to see surges of people coming into hospitals again.”

The Columbia University Department of Surgery, sharing coverage from the New York Times about the new research, tweeted on May 21: “We must heed our own warnings. Absorb this data. Wear a mask. As states reopen, don’t let the nonsense cloud your judgement.”

The modeling comes as a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll shows (pdf) that a majority of Americans — 77% — say they are concerned about a second wave of COVID infections hitting as states start to reopen this month. While that concern was expressed by most Democrats — 93%, 55% of Republicans also expressed worries about an upcoming second wave.

The poll also found that 67% of respondents believe it will take more than six months for their lives to return to a sense of normal. As of May 21, there were over 1.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 93,558 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S.

The Milwaukee Independent began reporting on what was then referred to as the mysterious “Wuhan Virus” in January 2020. Other local media did not picked-up on the story until many weeks later. Our early features focused on the economic impact, social issues, and health concerns long before other Milwaukee news organizations even mentioned the coronavirus. Over the following year, we have published hundreds of articles about the pandemic and how it has affected the lives of Milwaukee residents. This extensive body of work can be found on our COVID-19 Special Report page, a chronological index of links by month. Our editorial voice remains dedicated to informing the public about this health crisis for as long as it persists.
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