The front-page headline in the New York Times today stated that “Lockdown delays cost at least 36,000 lives, data show.” The central thesis of this article was that a delay of “two weeks” in implementing stay at home orders and social distancing cost 36,000 lives nationwide. I had to question whether this article was accurate because the implications are so remarkable.
First, contrary to the title’s assertion, there is no data. This story is based on estimates from a mathematical model that “predicts” death based on trends observed at different time points. This model was done under the direction of Jeffrey Shaman, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at Columbia University. Therefore, there are no actual deaths to support the contention that 36,000 lives would be saved.
The predictions from this model are biased towards location. These estimates heavily rely on lives saved in New York City. You may remember NYC’s mayor was late to close schools and Gov. Cuomo did not issue a stay at home order until March 22, a week or two later than many other areas in the country.
Given this, it is interesting to note that of the supposed 36,000 lives that would have been saved, almost 15,000 of them would have been in New York City alone. This shows the impact of the delays in New York City as compared to the rest of the nation, which would “lose only” 24,000 lives if the “estimates” are accurate.
In addition, the paper that the Times story was based on has not been scientifically reviewed and is simply an unpublished report. Because of this, it is difficult to evaluate the assumptions that went into the computer model. Lauren Ancel Meyers, a University of Texas at Austin epidemiologist who was not involved in the research, was quoted as saying “all models are only estimates, and it is impossible to know for certain the exact number of people who would have died.” She also indicated that the paper “makes a compelling case that even slightly earlier action in New York could have been game changing.”
In summary, the New York Times took a computer model that was presented in a preliminary communication in an unreviewed paper, called it data, and placed it on the front page. From this it suggested that the government is responsible for the loss of 36,000 lives.
If I were Gov. Cuomo I’d be pretty angry right now.