New Study: Quarantine Saved Lives Thanks to Fewer Mass Shootings & Car Wrecks

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Almost exactly one year ago, I made a video about a conservative COVID-19 talking point: that COVID-19 was being horribly over diagnosed, and most of the people who were counted as COVID deaths actually died of something else. Here’s what I said about how we might finally disabuse people of that notion:

“That’s why we won’t actually know the true mortality of COVID-19 for another few years. You can’t just look at the death certificates and come up with a number, which is what we’re doing now because that’s pretty much all you can do in the midst of a pandemic. I actually tried to get the total number of all-cause deaths for various states for March of 2020 but that data is very hard to access, as it should be because we really don’t need more armchair epidemiologists making our lives miserable. But one thing actual scientists can do in the future is look at, for instance, how many people died in New York in March of 2017, 2018, and 2019 and compare it to March of 2020. Then we’ll know the impact COVID-19 had.

“Just kidding! That still wouldn’t tell us, because there are always mitigating factors. Did fewer people die of car accidents because fewer people are out driving? Did more people die while sheltering in place due to common accidents around the home? Did fewer people die because they were surrounded by family who could take care of them? Did more people die because of an increase in domestic violence?

“This is why we have people study their whole damn lives to crunch this data. And this is why you should trust them instead of some, uh, “extreme salesman” Gish Galloping on Twitter.”

Well, guess what? It’s been a year. And we have some info.

So first of all, there actually was an immediate attempt to look at all-cause mortality around the world just two weeks after my first video. I talked about it in this video:

“At least 28,000 more people have died during the coronavirus pandemic over the last month than the official Covid-19 death counts report.

“The totals include deaths from Covid-19 as well as those from other causes, likely including people who could not be treated as hospitals became overwhelmed.”

That’s right, this video is just a clip show. 

Just kidding, let’s get to the new stuff: The Economist has compiled a huge database of information showing excess deaths in various countries. While that previous New York Times piece found the US experienced a 200% increase in deaths in March of 2020, things got even worse with several weeks in April hitting 500 and 600% increases. Luckily other states like California shut down early enough to avoid a similar deviation but the statistics still don’t lie — we experienced significant excess deaths every week since March 14 2020, with a major spike over the holidays that we still haven’t recovered from.

As usual I don’t expect this data to convince the conservatives who have been parrotting this idea of “COVID is overly diagnosed” for an entire year. But for anyone with any amount of logic or reason, who isn’t overwhelmed by ego, it is undeniable: COVID-19 had a devastating effect on mortality around the world.

But note that as I mentioned in my first video on the subject, the number of excess deaths does not equal the number of people who died of COVID-19, or even the number who died due to COVID patients overloading our ICUs. You see, the true death toll is actually much, much higher, which we know because of new research that suggests quarantine saved a significant number of lives just by keeping people at home. 

In Sheltering In Place and The Likelihood Of Non-Natural Death, published this week in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers compared non-natural deaths in California to those in Florida during the periods of time when California was sheltering in place but Florida was not. As an aside, “non-natural” deaths mean deaths that are supernatural, so like being mauled to death by a zombie, or defenestrated by a poltergeist.

Just kidding, it means deaths not related to illness, including COVID-19 but also things like cancer or heart disease. In the US we define a natural death as “due solely or nearly totally to disease and/or the aging process,” which encompasses about 89% of all American deaths. The researchers looked at this data specifically because of yet another conservative talking point (which I last brought up in my video about Naomi Wolf) — the idea that quarantine would actually lead to MORE non-natural deaths thanks to an increase in suicide and domestic violence, something that I would happily agree has a chance at being ture, though there’s simply no way a rational person could think that that increase would make up for the lives we save by stopping the spread of COVID.

Turns out, these researchers found that “Time-series modeling using seven years of weekly non-natural deaths shows that when California ordered sheltering in place but Florida did not, Californians yielded unexpectedly few non-natural deaths. We estimate an approximate 15% reduction below values expected from non-natural deaths in Florida and from historical patterns.” So, no, there doesn’t appear to have been an increase in deaths due to sheltering in place. Sorry, Naomi.

However, the researchers point out that the CDC hasn’t released all the data yet that would break down exactly who was dying of what cause beyond “natural” and “non-natural,” meaning that there still may have been an increase in suicides or death from domestic violence hidden in the total, but that increase was dwarfed by the astounding decrease in, say, people dying in car wrecks or random gun violence. So that’s something that future research is going to have to deal with when that data is made public, but in the meanwhile we can say that overall, quarantine saved lives.

Now let’s go back and think some more about that huge (at times 600% increase) in all-cause mortality. That includes both “natural” and non-natural deaths, so that absolutely shocking jump in dead people was most likely actually mitigated by the number of lives saved just by keeping people at home. If we say something like “oh, an extra 4,000 New Yorkers died in March 2020 compared to previous Marches,” we need to reckon with the fact that that number is lower than it should be because of the number of people who didn’t die from non-natural, non-COVID causes. 

You know what would be nice? If we could learn from this by getting everyone vaccinated and then, you know, continuing to let a whole lot of people work from home if they can. Oh and we could institute rational gun control.. Because once we all stop dying of COVID, we could have a go at stopping people from dying to car wrecks and mass shootings. Just a thought for the future.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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