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Gov. Wolf’s COVID-19 restrictions saved thousands of lives in Pennsylvania, Pitt researchers say

A federal judge ruled that certain of the governor’s restrictions were unconstitutional, setting the stage for an appeal.

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a press conference in March, confirming the first two presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania.
Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a press conference in March, confirming the first two presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania.Read moreCommonwealth Media Services

While certain of the restrictions that Gov. Tom Wolf placed on Pennsylvania businesses have been ruled unconstitutional, there is little doubt that the overall effort saved thousands of lives.

That’s the conclusion of University of Pittsburgh physician Mark S. Roberts, whose team developed a model to estimate the impacts of closing and reopening schools, offices, restaurants, and stores.

Nearly 8,000 COVID-19 deaths have been confirmed in the state. Had fewer restrictions been imposed, that toll likely would have been several times higher, said Roberts, director of the Public Health Dynamics Lab at Pitt’s graduate public health school.

“It clearly has saved lives, no question at all,” he said. “It’s easy to project that there would be two to three times the deaths, at a minimum, with less social distancing.”

In a ruling Monday, U.S. District Judge William S. Stickman IV found the Wolf administration’s policy limiting indoor and outdoor gatherings and events to 25 and 250 people, respectively, violated “the right of assembly enshrined in the First Amendment.” The judge, who sits in Pittsburgh, also ruled that the administration’s stay-at-home and business closure orders were unconstitutional. Two weeks earlier, a federal judge in Philadelphia took the opposite view in a case that dealt solely with business closures, setting the stage for an appeal.

Like other researchers, the Pitt modelers took into account the biology of how readily the virus is transmitted, along with county-by-county data on when various institutions were allowed to open.

Hard data were available for schools and offices, while restaurants and grocery stores required the modelers to make certain assumptions and estimates, he said.

“We can measure things like school closure really easily,” he said. “But how do I know that person X goes to restaurant Y?”

On average, the modelers estimated that Pennsylvania engaged in a 50% level of social distancing for the first six months of the pandemic, on a scale where zero represents no restrictions and 100% is a total lockdown, he said. In March and April, that percentage hit 80, while recently it has been less.

The resulting prediction was 6,000 deaths — fairly close to what actually happened. Had the state maintained an average of just 30% distancing over the first six months, the number of deaths would have been at least twice as high, Roberts said.

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The modelers have yet to project what will happen in light of the court decision. But with school districts engaged in some degree of in-person instruction, a rise in cases is likely, Roberts said. Evidence indicates that children can spread the virus, though how efficiently remains unclear.

Evidence from elsewhere generally supports the finding that restrictions have saved lives. In a review of more than 20 studies this week in the Cochrane Library, researchers found that earlier shutdowns seemed to prevent more deaths, but said more study was needed to determine the most effective combination of restrictions.

In addition to restrictions and shutdowns, Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he believes masks are a key to controlling coronavirus spread.

“These face masks are the important, powerful public health tool we have,” Redfield said during testimony on Wednesday during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the coronavirus.

He said there is clear scientific evidence that masks work to limit the spread of COVID-19, and if all Americans wore facial coverings while out in public for six to 10 weeks, “we’d bring this pandemic under control.”

Redfield’s comments came after President Donald Trump questioned the importance and effectiveness of masks during a town hall meeting in Philadelphia on Tuesday night.

“A lot of people don’t want to wear masks. There are a lot of people who think the masks are no good,” Trump said, citing waiters.

Said Redfield, “I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine."

On Wednesday the federal government outlined a sweeping plan to make vaccines available free to all Americans, but that’s assuming a safe and effective one is established and widely accepted by the public.