How Many Lives Have We Saved?

Marc Stier |

While Republican legislators have been insisting on an early reopening of businesses in Pennsylvania, we have seen one of the most dramatic declines in both COVID-19 cases and deaths of any state in the country. From a height of 1965 on April 19, the number of new cases dropped to 346 on June 21. And from a maximum of 554 deaths recorded on May 5, we had only three recorded on June 21. We have seen, and no doubt will continue to see, fluctuations in these numbers depending on vagaries in testing and reporting and how well Pennsylvanians adhere to guidelines meant to protect us as businesses reopen. But there is no doubt that the sacrifices we have made to limit the transmission of COVID-19 have had an impact. And the experience of states that have reopened businesses early and seen sharply rising numbers of people infected and deaths has only reinforced how important our business closure and stay-at-home policies have been.

It is difficult to estimate how many cases and deaths were prevented by the business closure and stay-at-home orders. However, a recent study found that shutdown orders across the United States prevented 60 million cases of COVID-19. Using a 4% rule of thumb for estimating the Pennsylvania impact of a national situation, that would mean that the governor’s health and safety orders prevented 2.4 million cases of COVID-19 in the Commonwealth. (This likely underestimates the actual number because Pennsylvania has the tenth highest caseload in the country, accounting for 5% of all U.S. cases.) If the percentage of people who died as a result of COVID-19 were equal to the national case mortality rate of 5%, another 131,000 Pennsylvanians would have died by now but for the governor’s decisive actions. Notably, these estimates do not take into account the impact of 2.4 million additional cases in a state that has only 14,395 hospital beds and 1,098 ICU beds. Overwhelming our health care system would have undoubtedly led to even more deaths.

Sadly, despite the success of the policies put in place under Governor Wolf’s emergency orders, more than 80,000 Pennsylvanians have become infected with the COVID-19 virus and, as of today, just under 6,600 have died. This is horrible. But we should remember that things could have been—and would have been—much worse if Governor Wolf had not taken aggressive steps to protect us. We should remember what he did despite consistent criticism and opposition from Republicans in the General Assembly

Note: Due to our misunderstanding the research on which this piece was drawn we made a serious error which was corrected here.