The SARS-COV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic has infiltrated almost all aspects of our lives, bringing much of normal societal flow to a grinding halt. Social distancing has restricted contact with others, business closures have reversed economic growth, and other safety and prevention measures have resulted in an abrupt and dramatic change to daily life. Despite these drastic actions, there are still nearly 13 million confirmed cases worldwide and well over 3 million in the United States (U.S.) alone, at the time of this writing. The vast number of COVID-19 infections and, worse, deaths from the virus, begs the question, have the steps we’ve taken made any difference? Is that measurable and, if so, how? Answers to these questions are crucial for a number of reasons. First, the changes we’ve been collectively making are hard. So, knowing whether these steps are saving lives and reducing infections can be motivating. Similarly, some leaders have sown doubt, causing a certain percentage of citizens to ignore scientific recommendations and raising wonder about whether the collective inconvenience, job loss, diminished learning, and isolation are worthwhile or not?
knowing whether these steps are saving lives and reducing infections can be motivating
To address this concern and curb the public skepticism, researchers from the University of Berkeley recently analyzed data to assess the effectiveness of a variety of protective measures across six major epicenters of COVID-19 including the U.S., Iran, France, China, South Korea, and Italy. Gathering 1,717 points of information from the six countries, the researchers assessed the significance of the effect by comparing the growth rate of COVID-19 just prior to the intervention (or interventions) to the change in growth rate soon after the implementation of one or more policies including, but not limited to:
If Nothing Had Been Done, 530 Million People Infected Worldwide
Without any policy action at all, the researchers estimated that the growth rate of COVID-19 infection would have been 43% higher per day across the six countries studied. This would have translated to 14 times more identified COVID-19 infections (i.e. nearly 5 million more cases) in the US alone as of the first week in April. In total, the study predicted that without intervention, there would have been 62 million more confirmed cases (again, as of early April) in the six countries, corresponding to 530 million total infections across the world.
Fig. 4 | Estimated cumulative confirmed COVID-19 infections with and without anti-contagion policies.
The current total of confirmed cases, close to 13 million, pale in comparison to these predicted values if no measures had been implemented in these 6 countries. It is clear that policy measures “significantly and substantially slowed the pandemic” spread.
A similar study published in Health Affairs, discovered comparable trends in reduced growth rate of infection in the U.S. after implementation of shelter in place orders (SIPO). Following policies until the end of April, the Health Affairs researchers projected that without SIPO, there would have been 10 million more cases across the U.S. and without additional measures of event bans and closures (discussed below), there would have been 35 million more cases. Since two independent studies produced parallel results, we can feel confident about the accuracy of the estimated number of cases averted and lives saved as predicted by these statistical models. In other words, our collective actions and sacrifices, both as individuals and society at large, have mattered and have saved lives.
our collective actions and sacrifices, both as individuals and society at large, have mattered and have saved lives
If Nothing Had Been Done, 530 Million People Infected Worldwide
Both analyses went even further to try to uncover whether specific policies were most influential in mitigating spread of the disease compared with others. According to UC Berkeley and Health Affairs authors, social distancing has been especially impactful for slowing the spread of the virus; but, perhaps, school closures have not had as large an effect. Home isolation and social distancing, per the UC Berkeley analysis, reduced the growth rate of cases of coronavirus by
-11.31% and -21.81% respectively. The study in Health Affairs also found that the SIPO provided the largest decrease in growth rate of -8% after only 21 days of implementation and that that result, in scientific terms, was statistically significant (p<0.01) – meaning the decline in spreading COVID-19 was definitely from the changed behavior, and not simply luck or chance. Additional actions that have also been emotionally draining and economically difficult, like business closure and quarantining those who test positive for COVID-19, have also effectively slowed the spread of COVID-19. The UC Berkeley experts report that these two actions resulted in a decrease in the rate of COVID-19 growth in the U.S. by -5.35% and -5.92% respectively, and even more in other countries like Italy (-11.40% and -6.06%, respectively). Neither of these studies examine the economic or psychological impact of these various preventative measures, which should be the subject of future research. However, this data makes it clear that while many of these protective measures are costly, challenging, and often unenjoyable, they have successfully stopped the spread of COVID-19.
What Can We Glean?
Both studies make it clear that their reports cannot determine definitively which protective measures are necessary, and which may be obsolete. Rather, these studies aim to shed light on the success of particular measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 and highlight how, all together, worldwide collective efforts have made a massive difference in combating the virus. These results prove that measures such as social distancing and home isolation have significantly slowed the spread of COVID-19, despite some dissenting opinions. In addition, while school closure and cancellation of large gatherings did not show significance or decreases in growth rate, both studies emphasize that these findings should not be interpreted as being unnecessary, nor does the data claim any stake on whether they be applied or avoided for future disease prevention.
The results of these analyses should be comforting since most of the preventative measures have produced what they intended.
The results of these analyses should be comforting since most of the preventative measures have produced what they intended. Through these measures, nations across the world were able to unite to implement meaningful action to slow the spread of COVID-19 and were able to prevent upwards of 530 million global infections. Dr. Kendon Bell, one of the UC Berkeley researchers, stated that as a global population, “we should be very proud” of our teamwork and collective actions to address the pandemic.
These studies lay the foundation for effective statistical analysis of virus prevention and provide a template for what actions should be considered when facing the next pandemic. Our collaborative efforts to practice social distancing, in particular, and other measures have paid off. We have successfully cared for and protected one another. Let’s continue.
Written & Reported by Robert Shepard; Edited by Dr. Jacki Hart