Early COVID-19 Shutdowns Helped St. Louis Area Avoid Thousands Of Deaths


ST. LOUIS– A new study by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found the early COVID-19 shutdowns in St. Louis City and County avoided thousands of deaths.

The research, published September 1 in JAMA Network Open, found that if the orders had been delayed two weeks the city and county would have likely seen 3,292 deaths during the first three months of the pandemic.

The researcher’s modeling shows that is 2,810 more deaths than the actual 482 deaths attributed to COVID-19 during that time period.

Washington University says the researchers analyzed an epidemiological model to examine what was likely to have happened if the epidemic trajectory from early March had continued without public health orders issued for another one, two, and four weeks.

The model also predicted that a two-week delay in health orders would have led to hospitalizations increasing from the actual number of 2,246 to an estimated 19,600 during the first three months.

Graphic by: Sara Moser

The first COVID-19 case in St. Louis County was reported on March 7, 2020. On March 23, the city and county issued shelter-in-place orders.

The research found that there would have been a considerable increase in hospitalizations and deaths with a one-week delay in public health orders as well.

The models predicted that a one-week delay would have led to an estimated 8,000 hospitalizations and 1,300 deaths by June 15.

Graphic by: Sara Moser

Researchers say the findings point to the importance of an early and coordinated implementation of local public health policies in reducing deaths from the pandemic.

The lead author of the study, Elvin H. Geng, MD, said during the early part of the pandemic there were stories about the dire situations in New York and Boston where thousands of people died and hospitals were overwhelmed. He says whether St. Louis would have seen a similar situation is not obvious.

 “Some may argue that because the same thing didn’t happen here, it could never have happened here and that, therefore, early social-distancing policies were an overreaction,” said Geng in a press release. “But our data suggest that a large number of deaths due to the pandemic was indeed possible in St. Louis, and therefore, the early implementation of public health orders helped prevent the number of deaths that cities such as New York and other places experienced.”

Cell phone data was also used during the pandemic to look at how people were moving around the area. Researchers estimated that before March 15, each person in the city and county with COVID-19 infected almost four other people on average.

For a pandemic to be curbed, researchers say each person must infect fewer than one other person on average.

The modeling for St. Louis and St. Louis County estimated that the average number of people each person with COVID-19 infected dropped from almost four to 0.93 after the stay-at-home policies went into effect.

The analysis was done with colleagues at Washington University, BJC HealthCare, Saint Louis University, Mercy Health, among others.

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