This New York Times interactive piece offers a chilling look into how COVID-19 spread in the US earlier this year. This part, in particular, caught my attention:
HOW THE FIRST OUTBREAKS SPREAD
Top federal health experts concluded by late February that the virus was likely to spread widely within the United States and that government officials would soon need to urge the public to embrace social distancing measures, such as avoiding crowds and staying home.
But Mr. Trump wanted to avoid disrupting the economy. So some of his health advisers, at Mr. Trump’s urging, told Americans at the end of February to continue to travel domestically and go on with their normal lives.
And they did. Millions moved across the country, cellphone data shows. Some unknowingly carried the virus with them.
Travel volume from March 1 to March 14, based on aggregated data from Cuebiq, a data intelligence firm. Minor routes not shown.
The reason this caught my attention is that in the March 1-14 window I traveled from my home in North Carolina to Washington, DC for a business trip that included a visit to the offices of several legislators on Capitol Hill on March 11. If that date looks familiar it’s because that’s the last day that Congress was open to visits from the public. Every office we visited had signs on the door stating that they were discouraging shaking hands, but that didn’t stop at least one Congressman from shaking my hand and one staff member from shaking everyone in my group’s hands – around 10 people.
In addition to visiting the Hill, I was attending a small national industry conference held at the Grand Hyatt. Several hundred people flew in from around the country for that meeting, and we spent hours together in meeting rooms of various sizes over several days. At the beginning of the conference, the only precaution we took was making sure everyone had hand sanitizer and we refrained from shaking hands. Three days later they had set up AV equipment in the meeting rooms so that people could remote in from their hotel rooms if they weren’t comfortable meeting in person.
After the conference, we were informed that if anyone was diagnosed with COVID-19 we would be informed and we never did get that notification. To be safe I decided to work from home for two weeks so I didn’t put my office mates at risk, and of course, by the time that was done, we’d shut down our office and moved everyone to work-from-home status.
In an interesting coincidence the League of Municipalities had a meeting in DC the same week we were there. Several members of Winston-Salem’s city council were there and visited Capitol Hill on the same day we did, March 11. Less than a week later they announced that they were self-isolating because attendees at their conference had tested positive for the virus. If I’d had any question about working from home before that then I’d have made the call to do so then because our paths crossed on the Hill.
So, how many meetings/conferences like ours were held somewhere in the country those first two weeks of March? How many people attending those meetings unwittingly carried the virus home with them? How many were like me: they didn’t really want to go to the meeting, but felt they had to? If the government had come out earlier then those meetings likely wouldn’t have happened and we wouldn’t have had to make that decision. It’s impossible to know how many additional infections/deaths this delay led to, but I suspect it was a substantial number.
This final bit of info from the Times piece:
More than 22,000 deaths in the New York City area could have been avoided if the country had started social distancing just one week earlier, Columbia University researchers estimate.
About 36,000 deaths nationwide could have been avoided by early May had social distancing begun earlier, the estimates say.