Scripps Experts Find 45 COVID-19 Deaths Could Have Been Avoided Last Summer

Nearly two deaths a day could have been avoided at Scripps' five hospital campuses alone had the pandemic restrictions remained in place, researchers found

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As many as 45 of San Diego County's COVID-19 deaths at Scripps' five hospital campuses could have been avoided if a 25-day reopening of businesses had not occurred in the county last summer, Scripps Health data experts found this week.

The researchers, part of a team with Columbia University infectious disease modeling scientists, concluded that the 45 deaths, or nearly two deaths a day, could have been avoided at Scripps' five hospital campuses alone had the pandemic restrictions remained in place. The research was released Thursday night.

"Our research shows that community restrictions work, and that message couldn't be any more important than now as federal health officials warn that a fourth COVID-19 surge could be around the corner if we let our guard down too much and too quickly," Scripps Health President and CEO Chris Van Gorder said, in part, in a statement.

On June 12, 2020, San Diego County officials approved a series of public health orders clearing the way for restaurants, bars, wineries, breweries, gyms and some other businesses to restart limited indoor activities.

Coronavirus Deaths in Your City and State — and Across the US

These charts use daily coronavirus death data from Johns Hopkins University to show the seven-day moving average of deaths at the city, state and country level.

The impact of coronavirus varies enormously in the United States from one place to another.

Source: Johns Hopkins University. Data for San Diego also includes Imperial County.
Credit: Visuals by Amy O’Kruk/NBC, data analysis by Ron Campbell/NBC

On July 7, county officials once again shut down indoor activities at those businesses during what turned out to be a sharp mid-summer second spike of the disease.

Scripps data experts reached out to scientists in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health in New York, who already had used statistical modeling methods to show that early delays in locking down cities and states across the entire country had cost at least 36,000 lives nationwide through the first spike of COVID-19.

Locally, the Scripps and Columbia team focused on two scenarios -- not having the 25-day-long reopening in the county and shortening the reopening period by one week.

Had county officials left the stricter restrictions in place, 400 COVID-19 hospitalizations and 45 deaths might have been avoided at Scripps' five hospital campuses, the researchers found. Under the second scenario, 172 hospitalizations and 19 deaths might have been avoided had the temporary reopening been shortened by one week.

The World Health Organization’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan spoke on Tuesday after several nations made the decision to halt use of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

During the time evaluated by the researchers -- from the arrival of the virus in the San Diego County community in early March until Aug. 31 -- Scripps hospitals recorded 1,268 COVID-19 hospitalizations, 300 ICU admissions and 180 deaths from the virus.

Researchers also modeled a third scenario that looked at the potential consequences of leaving the reopening conditions in place for a longer period beyond July 25. Under those circumstances, more deaths, 85, and hospitalizations, 762, would have occurred.

The researchers say the results reinforce the health benefits of social distancing while offering cautionary evidence to public officials who face ongoing pressure to ease restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the disease, as new and faster-spreading variants of the coronavirus threaten to reverse the progress made in recent weeks to rein in the virus.

"We created the summer reopening study to establish additional scientific and evidence-based reassurance that social distancing works," said Nathaniel Brown, Scripps director of health data sciences. "We would like to reassure the public that their sacrifices -- economic, personal and otherwise -- are not in vain, but in fact are the key to preventing avoidable sickness and death."

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