Americans excel at coronavirus safety precautions

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Americans, it turns out, are excellent at following social-distance and stay-at-home orders.

It’s an unexpected finding. When the coronavirus outbreak picked up steam in Wuhan in January, the Chinese government cracked down, forcing residents to stay in their homes. At the time, it was hard to envision independence-loving Americans would ever agree to behave with similar compliance. Skeptics said it would never happen.

They were wrong.

New data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that Americans responded quickly and thoroughly to directions from federal, state and local leaders, doing everything from carefully washing their hands, cleaning high-touch areas, avoiding the workplace and, in many cases, giving up much-needed income to stay at home.

Those measures now appear to be paying off by slowing the spread of the disease. Some early models of the U.S. outbreak suggested that as many as two million Americans could die from Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The success of social distancing cut those estimates repeatedly, with models now suggesting fewer than 70,000 Americans will die.

“That’s remarkable,’’ said CDC Director Robert Redfield. “The American public listened to that message: Protect the vulnerable.’’

The models underestimated the extent to which Americans would embrace the recommendations and engage in social distancing, Redfield said in an interview last week. Original estimates for compliance were put at around 50%, but in the end, “compliance to the message has been in excess of 90%,” Redield said.

Politicians have pushed the social-distancing message repeatedly. “This is an unprecedented time in the life of the nation,” said Vice President Mike Pence at a White House press briefing Monday. “As we see the numbers leveling and maybe even beginning to go down, I just encourage you to keep doing what you are doing.”

While the first emergency declarations from individual states didn’t dramatically reduce mobility levels, that changed with the layering on of additional measures like closing schools, bars and restaurants, and the federal government’s 15 Days to Slow the Spread guidelines, according to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The deterrent effect of reporting the soaring number of cases each day combined with strict state-wide directives to stay home, had their desired effect in four of the hardest-hit cities in the U.S. Residents in New York, New Orleans, San Francisco and Seattle dramatically reduced their mobility from the end of February through the start of April as the potential threat from the virus, and the corresponding concern from local leaders, steadily rose.

About 80% of residents in those four cities left home daily at the end of February, the agency’s report showed. Five weeks later, on April 1, just 42% of New Yorkers were leaving home on any given day. Fewer than half of those in San Francisco ventured out, while 52% of Seattleites and 61% of those in New Orleans left their homes daily.

People can leave home and still comply with social-distancing guidelines, for example to make a trip to the grocery story or to go for a walk outside.

Smartphone Tracking
Those findings were based on the percentage of smartphones, watches and other personal mobile devices that moved more than 500 feet away from their typical nighttime location. The data was gathered by SafeGraph, a company that posts publicly available information collected from anonymous location signals embedded in mobile devices. The researchers tracked more than 750,000 devices daily.

“Public policies to increase compliance with social distancing, including limits on mass gatherings, school closures, business restrictions and stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders appear to be associated with decreases in mobility,’’ the CDC report said.

Not every area of the country has been hard-hit by the virus. Seven states, including Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas, still don’t have stay-home orders in place. In other states, including Texas and Florida where young revelers crowded beaches in late March to enjoy spring break, both the public and elected officials were slow to embrace social distancing.

Some states, even those that have been hardest hits by the virus, are looking for ways to start re-opening as economic pressure and the difficulty of staying home build.

It won’t be safe to relax the social-distancing rules until four criteria are met, said Caitlin Rivers, from the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. There must be fewer cases every day than the day before for two weeks; there must be enough tests for everyone with symptoms; and there needs to be plenty of hospital beds for those who need care; and there needs to be sufficient protective gear for health workers.

“I do feel confident that social distancing is working. We’ve seen it work in New York City, We’ve seen it work in Washington state,” she said. “I am confident that staying home will slow the spread, and so I think we should definitely continue doing that.’’

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