New UT study looks at effects of COVID-19 social distancing

Talk 1370 Newsroom
June 02, 2020 - 9:01 am
Coronavirus data analysis

AUSTIN (Talk1370.com) -- A new study by epidemiological researchers at the University of Texas is taking a look at how social distancing efforts impacted the spread of COVID-19.

The paper, which is now in press with the CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, took a look at 58 cities throughout China and analyzed when cases were first detected, when social distancing and other measures were implemented, and when the outbreak was considered to be contained.

The results, researchers say, show that for every day a city delayed implementing social distancing measures, it added 2.4 days to the length of the outbreak.

"Every day saves time, saves effort, saves people becoming infected and probably saves lives," said Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of integrative biology who leads the UT Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. "This is particularly important as we think about the coming weeks and months."

Researchers say the findings are applicable to both initial outbreaks and any possible resurgence in the coming months. If cities wait just one week after early signs of a resurgence, it could add another 17 days to social distancing.

"It will be difficult to consider strict interventions again, but acting early upon signs of resurgence will mean fewer days of social distancing orders," said Spencer Fox, associate director of the UT Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium and co-author on the paper.

"Our findings have implications for the timing of interventions in U.S. cities," Meyers said. "The impact of delays may be particularly important for communities that are prone to rapid transmission, such as nursing homes, colleges, schools and jails. We need concrete plans for when and how to respond to rising cases to prevent unnecessarily long and costly restrictions."

To determine when an outbreak had been contained, scientists look at case counts and determine the reproduction number, a measurement that shows how many people will be infected by one infectious person. If the reproduction number drops below 1, scientists consider the outbreak contained.

Other studies into the impact of delaying social distancing measures have used modeling to estimate a link between the time of measures being taken and the effect on outbreaks. By contrast, this study used on-the-ground data to determine the link between cities taking measures to contain the virus and rates of the virus spreading.

The study was not able to determine which social distancing measures were most effective, but it showed that the timing of the first measure, regardless of the type, had a big impact.

"We provide direct, data-driven evidence that the timing of interventions has a substantial impact on how long an outbreak lasts, how effective our interventions are and, ultimately, how many people might be infected and die from the virus," Meyers said.

Although the study looked at cities experiencing the earliest days of an outbreak, the findings are also relevant for cities in the middle of an outbreak, Meyers said.

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