A recent academic study has concluded that shutdowns and other controversial measures taken by St. Louis city and county leaders early in the pandemic likely saved thousands of lives. The findings are relevant in today’s protracted debates over mask mandates and vaccine passports.
The study by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis used an epidemiological model to determine what would likely have happened if the trajectory of hospitalizations and deaths here had continued unimpeded by the emergency pandemic orders issued in mid-March 2020 by St. Louis city and county officials.
It found that even a two-week delay on those moves to close schools, bars and restaurants, ban large gatherings and issue shelter-in-place orders could have fueled an almost sevenfold increase in the number of deaths that actually happened.
Many cities didn’t react as quickly to their rising cases and as a result were overwhelmed with hospitalizations and deaths. Who can forget the images out of New York of bodies being stored in refrigerated trucks because the morgues were full?
St. Louis officials, to their enduring credit, didn’t wait for that to happen here. Beginning in the second week of March, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and then-St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson banned large gatherings. The following week saw orders to close bars and restaurants, close schools, and, on March 23, to issue shelter-in-place orders in both the county and city.
The orders, unprecedented in modern times, stoked anger from businesspeople, parents and others, many of whom accused political leaders of overreacting to a virus that, at the time, had infected just over 100,000 Americans and killed fewer than 2,000. It would have been unthinkable then that U.S. cases would ultimately top 40 million, with more than 660,000 deaths. But Krewson, Page and others faced the unthinkable and took the heat for their decisions.
The researchers’ model found that, absent those restrictions, by mid-June 2020, the city and county would have seen almost 3,300 deaths, as opposed to the 482 deaths it actually saw during that time. Hospitalizations would likely have exceeded 19,000, instead of the 2,246 that actually occurred.
As the study’s lead author, Dr. Elvin Geng, put it, the data suggests that “the city and county dodged a bullet with early social distancing measures.”
Krewson and Page didn’t have some mystical power to see the future; they just followed the best scientific guidance available at the time. Today, the science says mass vaccinations and masking in schools and business are the best ways to finally bring this hellish pandemic to an end. Some of the short-sighted citizens and politicians who are currently spurning that advice might not even be here right now had this region’s leaders not followed the science last time.