In the first week of March, President Donald Trump was still downplaying the threat that COVID-19 posed on the United States. He urged Americans during a March 5 town hall to be “calm,” saying “it’s going to all work out.”
But according to research published this week by infectious disease modelers at New York’s Columbia University, tens of thousands of lives in the U.S. could have been saved had social distancing measures been imposed around the time of Trump’s town hall.
It wasn’t until March 16 that Trump told Americans to avoid non-essential travel and gathering in groups. The new study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, says the lives of about 36,000 people could have been saved if such restrictions had been introduced just one week earlier.
And if the same restrictions had been imposed on March 1, researchers said, an estimated 54,000 fewer people would have died from the coronavirus by the first week of May.
“Our findings underscore the importance of early intervention and aggressive response in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic,” the researchers said in their paper.
Even a week or two could make a “big, big difference,” epidemiologist Jeffrey Shaman, who led the research, told The New York Times.
“That small moment in time, catching it in that growth phase, is incredibly critical in reducing the number of deaths,” he said.
Responding to the estimates by Shaman and his team, the White House told the Times that Trump’s restrictions on travel from China and Europe, imposed in January and mid-March respectively, mitigated the spread of COVID-19.
During the town hall in early March, Trump touted his decision to restrict travel between the U.S. and China, where the coronavirus is believed to have originated, as a move that “saved a lot of lives.”
“We’ve been given A-pluses for that” decision, he said.
But Shaman’s research suggests that many more lives could’ve been saved had other interventions been taken at the time.
Such action would have had a “very drastic effect in reducing the number of cases and deaths that we would have seen thus far,” Shaman told CNN’s Don Lemon on Wednesday.
His team’s findings should also serve as a warning as states prepare to loosen virus restrictions, Shaman added.
“As we loosen these restrictions, it’s possible we could start to have the growth of the virus in a lot of communities if we’re not careful,” he told Lemon. “If social distancing practices lapse. If people aren’t wearing face masks as they start to go to businesses and restaurants and theaters. 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.”
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