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We flattened the curve before it flattened us

Most people agree that stay-at-home social distancing succeeded in flattening the curve, saving the medical establishment from being completely overwhelmed.

But in terms of the numbers of infections and deaths that were avoided because of the measures taken, few have any idea of the scale of the disaster we were largely spared.

Between March 20 and March 31, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 nationwide went from 15,219 to 163,539, which means that the number was steadily doubling every 3 to 3.5 days. The first statewide social distancing, stay-at-home order was California’s on March 19. By April 1, 29 more states had issued similar orders, and another 10 did so by April 6. Due to the time lag between infection and the appearance of symptoms acute enough to require testing, the effects of social distancing only began to register the first few days of April. This is when the curve started to “flatten” — the frequent doubling of cases throughout March was mitigated. Between April 1 and May 6, the number of cases doubled just over 2.5 times. It seems reasonable to assume that, had there been no stay-at-home orders, the March trajectory would have continued. If doubling would have occurred every three-and-a-half days, the number of confirmed cases would have doubled 10 times between April 1 and May 6.

On April 1, there were 186,101 confirmed cases in the U.S. Do the math (10 x 2 multiplications). We would, on this basis, have the staggering total of 190.6 million cases by May 6. The mortality rate has been between 5% and 6% of confirmed cases. Undoubtedly with the disease completely out-of-control, the mortality rate would have been much greater, but even going with the low 5% this would mean 9.5 million dead.

Could the confirmed cases have doubled again after May 6? No, simply because the number would exceed the population of the U.S. As it happened, thanks largely to shutting everything down, the actual number of confirmed cases on May 6 was 1,263,092 (compared to 190.6 million) with 74,799 dead (instead of 9.5 million).

Here are some sobering considerations: 9.5 million greatly exceeds the number of American lives lost in all wars (about 1.4 million, which assumes a possibly high estimate of 750,000 for the Civil War) together with the deaths from the 1918 pandemic (675,000) and adding all traffic accident fatalities since the invention of the automobile (high estimate 3.5 million).

It represents four years of deaths from all causes, all lost in five weeks. Shock and agony aside, how does a nation handle 9.5 million dangerously infectious corpses?

Those who believe a choice was made between limiting the pandemic and preserving the economy are deluded. No economy could survive what would have happened had there been no social distancing.

Nicholas Follansbee lives in Ashland.

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