Did these 31 scientists save millions of lives?
Neil M Ferguson, Daniel Laydon, Gemma Nedjati-Gilani, Natsuko Imai, Kylie Ainslie, Marc Baguelin, Sangeeta Bhatia, Adhiratha Boonyasiri, Zulma Cucunubá, Gina Cuomo-Dannenburg, Amy Dighe, Ilaria Dorigatti, Han Fu, Katy Gaythorpe, Will Green, Arran Hamlet, Wes Hinsley, Lucy C Okell, Sabine van Elsland, Hayley Thompson, Robert Verity, Erik Volz, Haowei Wang, Yuanrong Wang, Patrick GT Walker, Caroline Walters, Peter Winskill, Charles Whittaker, Christl A Donnelly, Steven Riley, and Azra C Ghani are listed as the authors of “Impact of Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions to Reduce COVID-19 Mortality and Healthcare Demand,” Monday’s report from Imperial College London on computer models of the spread of the novel cornoavirus and the impact of public health interventions. The report, which apparently roused the White House and 10 Downing Street to more serious responses to the pandemic, makes clear why we are shutting down our schools and businesses and staying home and why we will continue staying away from each other like this for the next two years, until scientists develop an effective vaccine.
The Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team calculates that if we all acted like Donald Trump in February or spring breakers last week in Florida, if we just let coronavirus run its course like any other disease, 510,000 Brits and 2.2 million Americans would die by August of covid-19:
…and that’s “not accounting for the potential negative effects of health systems being overwhelmed on mortality”—folks with other maladies who won’t be able to get normal treatment because doctors and nurses are swamped treating covid-19 patients with jerry-rigged ventilators.
We’ve already lost 260 Americans and 177 Brits to the coronavirus, and we will lose more. But how many lives can we save?
The Imperial College team does not recommend complete and continuous lockdown. If none of us stepped out of our houses for two years, sure, none of us would get coronavirus, but we’d also eat our couches.
Nor do the researchers say we can solve the problem with one short suppression period. If we all stay home and live on Amazon delivery for a few weeks or a few months, then go right back to normal life, we just shift the sickness and hospital overload to fall or winter:
Instead, the researchers model “adaptive triggering of suppression strategies” that kick in when the number of coronavirus patients admitted to intensive care units each week climbs above a certain threshold and end when those society-wide isolation measures reduce ICU cases to some fraction (like a quarter) of that trigger value. The model assumes that universal social distancing and school and university closure switch on and off, while “home isolation of suspect cases, home quarantine of those living in the same household as suspect cases” continue uninterrupted.
This adaptive triggering results in several sharp but manageable spikes of ICU usage:
The Imperial College scientists run a lot of numbers and produce a wide range of possible impacts based on varying on/off triggers and contagion rates and intensity of suppression measures. If covid-19 is slightly less contagious, the model predicts that nationwide social distancing and school closures imposed 64% of the time over the next two years in conjunction with continuous case isolation and home quarantine would reduce deaths in Great Britain from the do-nothing 460,000 to 17,000. That’s a 96% reduction on fatalities. If covid-19 is slightly more contagious, those same suppression measures would be triggered more frequently—83% of the time—and would reduce deaths from 550,000 to 30,000.
“Results are qualitatively similar for the U.S.,” says the report, so staying away from each other for eight to ten months of the year could save 1.8 million to 2.1 million American lives.
The Imperial College team says nationwide social distancing, school closures, and home isolation of cases constitute “a minimum policy for effective suppression.” The scientists note that infection rates vary from place to place—South Dakota might see a surge in ICU cases while Iowa sees a decline, or Minnesota might hit an “on” trigger while Wisconsin is still below the threshold—so national suppression policies need to allow local flexibility for greater efficiency.
But two million lives. Two million American lives.
Two million lives is why we’re taking classes online. Two million lives is why we’re not having graduation ceremonies or receptions for the Class of 2020… and maybe not for the Class of 2021. Two million lives is why we’re not eating out or going to see Night Ranger at the Aberdeen Civic Arena on May 22. Two million lives is why we’re working at home. Two million lives is why we’re going to shut down a lot of small and large businesses and ration groceries and see dollar-a-gallon gasoline and still not go on any long roadtrips. Two million lives is why we are going to ride out an economic depression with socialist interventions, just like we had to in the 1930s.
Two million lives is why we will not shake hands or socialize or live normally for the rest of this year, or next year.
Two million lives is why we must listen to those 31 scientists and follow their advice. It’s our duty to throw out our normal way of life to save those lives… and give scientists time to save the world again with a vaccine.