‘These data do not give us hope’: COVID-19 cases rebound immediately when states lift social distancing policies

Social distancing policies are being lifted or relaxed throughout the United States, usually after a drop in the area’s total number of COVID-19 cases. According to a new study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, however, removing such policies prematurely often leads to a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases, one that hurts any chances of truly putting an end to the ongoing pandemic.

The authors explored data from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. In the eight weeks prior to social distancing policies being lifted or relaxed, the team observed a steady decline in transmission rates. The policies covered by this analysis included school closings, restaurant/bar closings, the limiting of public events and more.

After the policies were lifted or relaxed, however, those transmission rates bounced back with a vengeance in all but nine states.

“The hope was that these measures would lead to sustained changes in behavior: mask wearing and physical distancing,” senior author Mark J. Siedner, MD, MPH, an investigator at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said in a statement. “These data do not give us hope. Until a vaccine is available, these measures are proving to be the most effective solutions to contain epidemic hotspots.”

“COVID-19 is disproportionately killing so-called essential workers, poorer people, and racialized minorities,” lead author Alexander C. Tsai, MD, PhD, an investigator at MGH and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said in the same statement. “In the absence of public health leadership at the federal level, these lockdowns are the best tool we have to slow transmission. But there are real costs to these lockdowns, costs that are again inequitably borne by so-called essential workers, poorer people, and racialized minorities, as well as children in public school programs who disproportionately miss out on school. So local governments need to continue to weigh the risks and benefits of these policies, and not be convinced that once you relax, there is no turning back.”

When states do lift or relax social distancing policies, it seems, cardiologists and other healthcare professionals should prepare for a potential rise in patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

The full study is available here.