Study Finds State, Local Measures Have Reduced Coronavirus Cases by 34 Million

May 15, 2020

A new report titled, “Strong Social Distancing Measures in the United States Reduced the COVID-19 Growth Rate” finds that steps taken to reduce the spread of corononavirus by state and local governments have had a major impact. The results imply that by April 27, the number of cases would have been 35 times higher without any of the measures — suggesting the U.S. would have reported 35 million (rather than 1 million) COVID-19 cases.

Authors of the new study — Charles Courtemanche and Aaron Yelowitz, both professors at the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics; Anh Le, a doctoral student at University of Kentucky; Josh Pinston, a professor at the University of Louisville; and Joseph Garuccio, a doctoral student at Georgia State — evaluated measures taken by states and counties across the country.

“The numbers are eye-popping but illustrate the enormous power of exponential growth,” Yelowitz said.

The study evaluates the impact of four measures taken by state and local governments to slow the spread of COVID-19 across U.S. counties from March 1-April 27 — bans on large social gatherings, public school closures, the shuttering of entertainment-related businesses and shelter-in-place orders. The report was published in Health Affairs.

The authors found the closing of entertainment businesses — such as restaurants, movie theaters and gyms — and shelter-in-place orders resulted in a dramatic reduction in COVID-19 cases.

According to the report, the combination of measures reduced the growth rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases by an amount that grew over time — reaching 9 percentage points after 16 days.

The results imply that by April 27, the number of cases would have been 35 times higher without any of the measures — suggesting the U.S. would have reported 35 million (rather than 1 million) COVID-19 cases.

However, the study determined the other two measures — bans on large gatherings and school closures — had a less significant impact.

“There are many potential reasons and our arguments for non-findings are speculative, although we think it could be the case that those measures simply displace social interactions rather than reducing such interactions,” Yelowitz explained. “For example, if parents congregate in parks when schools close, it’s possible that coronavirus is spread approximately the same.”

Courtemanche added that most large events — like March Madness — were already being canceled prior to any official prohibitions, which may have made these prohibitions redundant.

In conclusion, the authors believe the report sheds light on the current re-opening of the economy.

“Our results suggest that light measures don’t work, and strong measures do, but they don’t really say anything about intermediate measures — like opening restaurants at reduced capacity, or allowing socialization with masks,” Courtemanche said. “Since we don’t know what each intermediate step towards reopening will do, it makes sense to go one step at a time and look carefully for signs that the rate of spread is picking back up.”

Yelowitz said his main policy recommendation would be to strongly encourage states to watch some of the early openers to see what happens. “Given exponential growth, the rise in cases often looks unimpressive until right before things explode,” he said.

As stay-at-home orders are being lifted in some states and extended in others, uncertainty continues to surround the COVID-19 pandemic.

The University of Kentucky was also the source for another study focused on its own state. The study, released by the Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise (ISFE) at the University of Kentucky, confirmed COVID-19 cases in Kentucky could have reached 45,000 by April 25 without any state-imposed measures. For comparison, the current total of confirmed COVID-19 cases was fewer than 4,000.

Source: University of Kentucky

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