Extreme social distancing needed to suppress COVID-19 spread, study finds

Populationwide social distancing, combined with isolating confirmed COVID-19 cases at home and shutting down schools and universities for at least five months, could have the biggest effect on curbing the pandemic in the U.S. and U.K., a new study claims.

The modeling study, conducted by researchers at Imperial College of London in the U.K., used data gathered in China, Italy and South Korea, according to Minneapolis-based University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Researchers created a model to assess two common approaches to the pandemic — mitigation and suppression — and its effect on the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. and U.K.

Mitigation focuses on "flattening the curve," using strategies to slow the spread of the disease so it won't overwhelm healthcare systems. Suppression involves trying to reverse the disease spread by using extreme social distancing and quarantining confirmed cases to their homes.

Both approaches have major challenges, study authors wrote, according to the University of Minnesota center.

Mitigation alone, which includes isolating suspected COVID-19 cases, home quarantine of those living in the same household as suspected cases and social distancing of the elderly and other individuals at risk for severe disease, "would result in hundreds of thousands of deaths, and health systems (most notably intensive care units) being overwhelmed many times over," study authors wrote.

Suppression, which would require a combination of social distancing of the entire population, home isolation of cases, household quarantine of confirmed cases and their family members and school and university closures, would be most effective if it is "maintained until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more)," study authors wrote.

Results of the study suggest suppression tactics would be relatively effective at reducing transmission of the disease, assuming the tactics are in place for at least five months, but "social and economic effects of the measures which are needed to achieve this [suppression] policy goal will be profound," authors wrote.

Suppression may not be a feasible option in all countries, the authors stated.

The study paints a dire picture of the scenario in each country that failed to put either approach into place.

About 81 percent of the U.S. population would contract COVID-19, and 2.2 million would die. And the demand for critical care beds would be 30 times greater than supply by the second week of April, reports the University of Minnesota center.


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