Relaxing US lockdown measures could see coronavirus deaths 'double'

21 May 2020, 17:30

Social distancing measures must be closely monitored to avoid a deadly second wave in the US
Social distancing measures must be closely monitored to avoid a deadly second wave in the US. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

Relaxing lockdown measures in the US could lead to "a doubling of coronavirus deaths," researchers at Imperial College London have warned.

Roughly half of all states in the USA do not have their coronavirus outbreaks under control, according to the report.

24 of the 50 states have an R-rate - the number of people an infected person is likely to pass Covid-19 on to - greater than 1, the report's authors have said.

Medical experts in the UK have repeatedly stated that keeping the R below 1 is vital if the spread of the virus is to be controlled.

The US initially had a national R average of 2.2, which has decreased following historic shutdown measures across the country.

However, 24 states are still feared to be at levels considered "not under control," especially in the South and the Midwest.

Read more: Trump claims US topping world number of virus cases is 'badge of honour'

Dark green states are more likely to have an R below 1, whereas dark pink states are more likely to have an R above 1
Dark green states are more likely to have an R below 1, whereas dark pink states are more likely to have an R above 1. Picture: Imperial College London

Among those most likely to still have an R above 1 are Texas, Colorado, Arizona, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Ohio.

Imperial warned that increased mobility following the relaxation of "stay-at-home" measures could cause "a substantial resurgence in coronavirus" across the country.

The study, which has produced estimates rather than expected projections, warned that easing social distancing restrictions could cause the number of US deaths to double over a two-month period.

New York, which has been by far the worst-hit in terms of the number of confirmed cases and deaths, is now on the list of states most likely to have an R below 1.

There have been more than 353,000 infections in New York and 22,843 fatalities. In total, more than 1.58 million people have tested positive for the disease in the US, while almost 94,000 have died.

Read more: President Donald Trump calls for school reopenings despite warnings

Roughly 4.1 per cent of people are believed to have caught the virus nationally, according to the report, with that figure varying from state to state.

For example, in Montana, a state with one of the lowest population densities, only 0.2 per cent are thought to have contracted Covid-19, compared to 16.6 per cent in New York. Meanwhile, Montana initially had an R of 0.3, whereas New York's stood at 5.

Although all states have "substantially reduced" their reproduction numbers, authors of the report have said the country's epidemic "is not yet under control" and "effective additional measures" must remain in place if lockdown restrictions are eased.

Dr Samir Bhatt of Imperial College London, who was recently appointed as an advisor by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, said: "We show that even as daily deaths decrease nationally, transmission still persists throughout the United States and there is strong evidence that the epidemic is not under control.

"As states begin to reopen, careful surveillance and monitoring are absolutely essential to avoid a deadly second wave."

Fellow author Dr Seth Flaxman of Imperial College London added: "We calculate how many people in each US state have been infected with Covid-19 and how many people are currently infectious.

"Our estimates rely on death data, which is the most reliable and consistent source of information on the spread of the epidemic.

"We incorporate patterns of human movement to inform our epidemiological model, while rigorously quantifying the statistical uncertainty inherent in our estimates."

The findings were published in the latest joint report by the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Modelling within the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, the Jameel Institute (J-IDEA), and the Department of Mathematics at Imperial College London.

America currently has nearly as many deaths as the next three worst-hit countries in the world combined (the UK, Italy and France).

It also has more confirmed cases (1.58 million), than the next six most-infected countries combined (Russia, Brazil, the UK, Spain, Italy and France).

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