Social distancing saves lives, here's the science behind it

SEATTLE -- Political and business leaders have made painful and costly decisions this week to try to contain the spread of the new coronavirus known as COVID-19.

Washington state and others have banned crowds of 250 people or more, closed schools and canceled sporting events. The NCAA canceled its basketball tournament and all other winter and spring championships. Professional leagues have suspended play and Hollywood is suspending production on television and film projects.

On a smaller scale, restaurants are struggling in the Seattle area, with some forced to close their doors for good after the lack of business while the region's biggest employers send their employees to work from home. Other restaurants are cutting employee hours or laying them off altogether.

In a world of social distancing, where populations try to reduce contact, the result is an economic disaster for some. Many wonder if the measures we've seen to shut down society are an overreaction to the spreading virus, which has infected more than 500 people in Washington at publishing time.

The truth is, the decisions made to close schools, sporting events and more is based on science. The Institute for Disease Modeling in Bellevue showed in a study this week that social distancing does save lives.

By creating projections for King and Snohomish counties, scientists concluded that if life went on "business as usual," these two counties would have 25,000 cumulative infections by April 7.

By reducing human contact by 25 percent, the cumulative cases drops to around 10,000.

According to IDM's projections, the only way active infections will drop between now and April 7 is if society reduces contact by 75 percent, an extremely difficult mark to reach. But if nothing is done, infections will continue to spread at the current rate of doubling every six days.

Here's where saving actual lives comes into play. IDM projects that with no social behavior change, King and Snohomish counties will have 80 COVID-19 deaths by April 7, totaling 400 'destined deaths,' meaning infected people who haven't died yet.

With just a 25 percent reduction in human contact, that number of lives lost drops from 400 to 160.