The United States has the highest coronavirus death toll in the world.
It didn’t have to be this way – and in most developed countries, it isn’t. Countries like Germany, Singapore, Australia and Japan have fractions of our death rate.
If our response had been as effective as Germany’s, we would have had only 36,000 COVID-19 deaths by mid-June in the United States, instead of 117,000. If our response had been as effective as South Korea, Australia or Singapore’s, fewer than 2,000 Americans would have died by then. We could have prevented 99% of those COVID-19 deaths. But we didn’t. The number of coronavirus-related American deaths has now passed 165,000.
How did this happen?
In the spring, we shut down our lives and our economy in hopes of reducing the spread of COVID-19 enough to be able to manage it through widespread testing and contact tracing. In spite of that shutdown, today the virus is raging virtually uncontrolled. California recently declared defeat on the whole concept of contact tracing, because there are too many cases to trace. Other states are quite obviously in the same situation.
Was shutting down the wrong approach?
Clearly not. It worked in other countries. So what went wrong here?
We didn’t stick with it until the job was done.
Given our current situation, a shutdown that succeeds in suppressing the spread of the coronavirus is both the best way to save lives and the fastest way to start moving safely back toward social life.
But a shutdown is only effective if it lasts long enough and is comprehensive enough to interrupt transmission of the virus. An effective shutdown reduces the total number of infected people to the point where cases are rare enough to monitor and contain. Then, robust testing and contact tracing are critical to containing isolated outbreaks before they explode.
Public health experts have identified two key indicators for when it’s safe to lift a shutdown:
- The rate of new daily cases should be less than 1 per 100,000 people in the population.
- Less than 3% of people tested should have a “positive” test result. At that level, we can effectively trace new cases and contain new outbreaks.
That second indicator assumes that we are doing a lot of testing – enough to get a true picture of what is going on. Harvard’s Global Health Institute has said that to squelch the virus, we’d need to process about 4.3 million tests per day – which unfortunately is a staggering goal due to federal inaction to increase our capacity to create, ship, administer and evaluate COVID tests.
Using those key indicators, let’s look at what some individual states actually achieved with their shutdowns.
- California began reopening[i] on May 18th, when it had 4.5 new daily cases per 100,000 people, and 4.06% of people tested were infected (“test positivity rate”).[ii]
- Texas began reopening on May 1st with 3 new daily cases per 100,000 people and 5.7% test positivity.
- Arizona began reopening around May 11th, when it had 4.8 new daily cases per 100,000 people and 7.9% test positivity.
- Florida began reopening May 18th, when it had 2.7 new daily cases per 100,000 people and 4.2% test positivity.
- Colorado began reopening May 27th, when it had 5.2 new daily cases per 100,000 people and 7.6% test positivity.
These charts tell the story:
Director, Public Health Campaigns, PIRG
Matt directs PIRG's public health campaigns, including campaigns to address the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant infections by stopping the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture, and to reverse the alarming increase in teen nicotine addiction by banning tobacco products marketed to kids. Matt is an avid outdoorsman and loves to play the drums and harmonica.