New COVID-19 model shows why early action matters | Miles O'Brien Productions

New COVID-19 model shows why early action matters

A newly released analysis of coronavirus’ spread in the U.S. suggests a haunting hypothetical: that if social distancing and stay-at-home orders had been implemented only a week earlier, more than 30,000 lives might have been saved. But that alternate scenario relies upon computer-based modeling that has its limitations. PBS NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien joins Judy Woodruff to discuss how this data can be useful.


Judy Woodruff:

It’s a question that provided a haunting backdrop to this day’s news: How many fewer deaths might there have been if social distancing had started more widely earlier in March?

As we heard in Yamiche’s report, a group of statisticians estimate there might have been 36,000 fewer deaths had dramatic steps been taken sooner. But this estimate is based on a computer model. And the models have their limitations.

Miles O’Brien has been covering the work that goes into all this, as he did last night. And he joins us again tonight.

So, Miles, you have been looking at this new estimate. What did you find about how they came to this conclusion?

Miles O’Brien:

Well, Judy, it’s incredibly complicated stuff to try to model a pandemic that’s moving exponentially and judging that against the human response to it.

The basic formula is, they look at who’s susceptible, who’s exposed, who’s infected, and who’s recovering. And then they measure that against mobility data, cell phone mobility data, to get a sense of how well social distancing and sheltering in place is taking hold.

With those numbers and correlations based on what’s actually happened here in the United States, they roll back the clock and assume that those mobile patterns that were in place when the social restrictions were being adhered to more in this country were instituted earlier, and that’s where you get those numbers.

If they had started two weeks prior, there would have been 54,000 fewer deaths, 54,000. Now, that’s not too surprising when you talk about the exponential spread of a virus that is novel, but it does give some specific numbers to the particular problem.

Judy Woodruff:

So, these are eye-popping numbers, Miles.

But, as you were telling us, there are caveats here.

Miles O’Brien:

Well, what’s really important to remember is, if you to back two weeks prior to that date, first part of March, there were only eight deaths in the entire United States associated with COVID-19.

So, getting people to abide by strict social distancing, sheltering-in-place rules when there are only eight deaths total would probably not work very well. After all, people have to feel compelled to do things.

And so the models don’t capture that particular aspect of it, what — the human nature component.

Judy Woodruff:

Yes, it’s — so much of it, of course, is about the timing. And is it possible to know that these deaths were really preventable?

Miles O’Brien:

Yes, that’s an interesting point, because we talk about social distancing, and we talk about sheltering in place as a way to keep the health care system from overflowing, which would, of course, create more deaths, because people can’t get care.

But this particular paper, looking at these numbers, doesn’t account for that. It doesn’t sort out between those deaths and deaths that, frankly, might be inevitable, because it is, after all, a novel coronavirus, and we don’t have a vaccine.

But here’s an important point. If you take a look at using as a template South Korea, where they instituted early action, they did widespread testing, contact tracing, and the numbers have diminished dramatically — as a matter of fact, they’re getting back to work.

Professor Jeffrey Shaman is the lead author. He’s at Columbia University. He elaborated on that a little bit further.

Jeffrey Shaman:

I don’t think it’s inevitable that everybody will get infected.

If we were really to hold this virus in check, if we were reduce it analogously in the United States, so that, instead of 20,000 new cases each day, we only had 200 each day, we would be in a similar position, where we probably could hold this thing in check for a considerable amount of time, while giving ourselves the opportunity to develop therapeutics and an effective vaccine.

Judy Woodruff:

So, Miles, how useful is what the doctor saying, is this information?

Miles O’Brien:

Well, it’s not very useful if we spend all our time trying to point fingers. I think there’s plenty of blame to go around right now. I think the important point here is, we have settled into this idea that it’s a binary, either we’re shut down and at home and not going out, or we’re at work.

But there’s a lot of in between that we can think about, including more usage of masks, much more testing and contact tracing. And then, if you get to a point where there is a small outbreak, you can identify it much more quickly, and you can kind of put a ring around it and stop it from becoming that wildfire-type growth that we see with an exponential pandemic.

So, there is some — there are lessons here, if we are willing to listen. I’m afraid, if we don’t listen, we’re in for another surge pretty soon.

Judy Woodruff:

Still some ambiguity, but you are right, something we have to pay attention to.

Miles O’Brien, we thank you, as always.

Miles O’Brien:

You’re welcome, Judy.

Banner image credit: Mitch Butler/PBS NewsHour.

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