Coronavirus Shutdowns Prevented 60 Million Infections in the United States, Study Says

"I don't think any human endeavor has ever saved so many lives in such a short period of time," said the study's lead author

Stamford Hospital Inundated With Patients During Coronavirus Pandemic
Hospital room. Photo: John Moore/Getty

Although coronavirus shutdowns have come at great cost to the United States, they’ve also prevented millions of Americans from being infected, according to a new study.

In the study published on Monday, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley examined 1,717 local, regional and national coronavirus restrictions, estimating that the “unprecedented” shutdowns prevented about 530 million infections across the United States, China, South Korea, Italy, Iran and France.

In the U.S. alone, these shutdown measures prevented about 60 million infections, although the study noted that due to testing limitations, the number would translate to about 4.8 million confirmed cases.

No estimate was made for how many deaths were prevented by the restrictions.

Researchers found that among the many policies that have been implemented, isolating at home, business closures and lockdowns tended to have the clearest benefits, while travel restrictions and bans on public gatherings had varied success.

They also went on to note that “seemingly small delays in policy deployment likely produced dramatically different health outcomes.” A previous study estimated that the lives of at least 36,000 Americans could have been saved if the U.S. had started enacting stay-at-home orders one week earlier.

In discussing the effectiveness of shutdown policies, researchers acknowledged the reasons why many governments may be reticent about implementing or extending them.

“Societies around the world are weighing whether the health benefits of anti-contagion policies are worth their social and economic costs. Many of these costs are plainly seen,” researchers wrote, noting that conversely, the health benefits “are unseen.”

The study, which collected data from the early stages of the health crisis until April, was one way to make visible the benefits of these policies.

“The number of COVID-19 infections on a date depends on the growth rate of infections on all prior days. Thus, persistent reductions in growth rates have a compounding effect on infections, until growth is slowed by a shrinking susceptible population,” researchers wrote.

Before policies began being implemented, researchers found that infections were growing at 38 percent every day.

Based on their findings, researchers stated that stay-at-home orders and other shutdown policies have “significantly and substantially” slowed the growth of the virus.

"I don’t think any human endeavor has ever saved so many lives in such a short period of time. There have been huge personal costs to staying home and canceling events, but the data show that each day made a profound difference," Solomon Hsiang, director of Berkeley’s Global Policy Laboratory, said in a press release. "By using science and cooperating, we changed the course of history."

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A second study, which was also published on Monday, similarly showed that shutdown measures were effective throughout Europe.

Researchers from Imperial College London have estimated that shutdowns in Europe prevented 3.1 million deaths and decreased infection rates by an average of 82 percent.

The study examined data from 11 European countries, including the United Kingdom, from the start of the pandemic until May, when restrictions began to be lifted.

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