36,000 Lives Could Have Been Saved In US If Social Distancing Started One Week Earlier, New Study Says

A new study says that about 36,000 American lives could have been saved if social distancing measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus had been imposed just one week sooner, The New York Times reports.

President Donald Trump told Americans to hunker down and avoid non-essential travel or large gatherings of people on March 16. For weeks prior, critics had been saying that Trump was downplaying the risk that the virus posed to the world, and they say that he should have acted sooner than he did.

At the time, Trump argued that the disease was contained or would likely fade away on its own and compared it to the seasonal flu.

"Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on," Trump said on March 9. "At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!"

At the time, it was more likely that tens of thousands of people had been infected, but a lack of testing hindered the country's ability to track the disease.

The new report indicates that if Trump had acted sooner, tens of thousands of lives wouldn't have been lost. If social distancing measures had been put in place on March 1, about 83 percent of the deaths could have been avoided, the researchers say, which translates to just over 11,000 deaths by early May. Instead, the U.S. saw over 65,000 fatalities.

If social distancing had been imposed one week after that, over 29,000 lives would have likely been lost by early May.

"The enormous cost of waiting to take action reflects the unforgiving dynamics of the outbreak that swept through American cities in early March. Even small differences in timing would have prevented the worst exponential growth, which by April had subsumed New York City, New Orleans and other major cities, the researchers found," the NYT reported.

Jeffrey Shaman, who led the research team at Columbia University that produced the report, said that timing was vital in controlling the pandemic.

"It's a big, big difference. That small moment in time, catching it in that growth phase, is incredibly critical in reducing the number of deaths," he said.

While modeling can only guess at what would have taken place given different circumstances, the study also sheds some light on what states could be facing as they begin to reopen their economies. Some experts argue that not all states are ready to resume normal life, though every state has started the process of easing social distancing guidelines.

Some states that eased restrictions earlier than other states have seen a resurgence of the virus. A recent study suggests that with the current rate of infection, up to 1.2 million people could die by the year's end.