Covid study: 800,000 deaths prevented by social distancing

The report's authors said that changes in people's behavior before vaccines became available saved lives, but at a great cost.

Boulder, Colo. — A new study authored by researchers at CU Boulder and UCLA says social distancing and other preventative measures like lockdowns and school closures prevented hundreds of thousands of deaths from COVID-19 in the US.

According to the report, 800,000 more people would have died from Covid and Covid complications if precautions had not been taken before vaccines became available.

The study's authors, Stephen Kiesler of CU Boulder and Andrew Atkeson of UCLA, said the social changes have come at a high cost.

“Our work shows that behavior change can be a powerful force for slowing the spread of a dangerous and infectious respiratory disease over the long term,” said Kiesler, assistant professor of computer science at CU Boulder. “But with COVID-19, it came at a huge economic, social and human cost.”

Kiesler and Atkeson's research found that vaccines and behavior change were inextricably linked.

They wrote, “Without the vaccine, behavior alone would have averted infection, but eventually, almost everyone would become infected and would be subject to high infection mortality from that first infection.” “Without the behavioral response, vaccines would have come too late to save lives.”

Their report showed that 68% of Americans were able to get vaccinated before becoming infected. The study said that if people had got COVID for the first time before vaccination, their risk of death would have been four times higher.

Kiesler and Atkeson were concerned about how big an impact the change in behavior had. Pre-pandemic studies predicted changes would be minimal and short-lived. That said, the authors said they worry that if another pandemic comes, Americans will be less willing to stay at home.

“My concern is that the next pandemic will be more deadly, but people will ignore it because they'll say, 'Oh, we overdid it during COVID,'” Atkeson said.

Atkeson and Kiesler said US policymakers need to develop a more centralized infrastructure to collect data on how people live and interact in order to limit the spread of the virus. He said that if this infrastructure is established, pandemic-related restrictions can be eased in the future.

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