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Updated Study: 1,500 COVID-19 Deaths Avoided in First Month of California’s Order

A study involving two SDSU researchers reveals a positive health impact of California’s stay-at-home order in response to COVID-19 crisis.
By SDSU News Team

Editor’s Note (April 23, 2020): This article has been updated based on new information. New updates will be provided as the ongoing study progresses.

California Governor Gavin Newsom implemented the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. The order, still underway, requires citizens remain at home for all activities other than those deemed “essential,” such as purchasing food or medicine, caring for others, exercise, or traveling for employment. 

The order, much like similar stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders implemented in other states and also counties across the United States, was designed to reduce COVID-19 cases and mortality. 

“The coronavirus outbreak is one of the most serious threats to public health and economic security in our nation's history,” said Joseph Sabia, director of SDSU’s Center for Health Economics and Policy Studies (CHEPS). “Our team of scholars at CHEPS feels an obligation to produce and disseminate the best scientific evidence we can to help California policymakers mitigate the tremendous costs — in illnesses, deaths, and economic insecurity — this crisis has wrought.”    

A study to examine the impact of this order, “Did California’s Shelter in Place Order Work? Early Evidence on Coronavirus-Related Health Benefits,” is co-authored by: Sabia, an economics professor at SDSU, and Drew McNichols, a postdoctoral research fellow with CHEPS at SDSU and University California San Diego; Andrew Friedson, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Colorado Denver;  Dhaval Dave, the Stanton Research Professor of Economics at Bentley University; and a team of student research assistants. 

This study is the first to rigorously examine the short-run impact of California’s stay-at-home order on the rate of confirmed COVID-19 infections and COVID-19-related mortality. Most recently, Newsom announced a framework that could lead to a modification of the original executive order. 

The team relied on a commonly used statistical modeling method to investigate the rate of COVID-19 cases and deaths. The method, called “synthetic control analysis,” was used to construct what California’s path of COVID-19 cases would have looked like if Governor Newsom had not implemented the stay-at-home order. They examined coronavirus case growth in states that were similar to California, except that those states adopted the stay-at-home orders later, or not at all.

Primarily, the team estimated that California’s order reduced the number of COVID-19 cases by nearly 88,000 and deaths by about 1,500 during the first five weeks after the order was enacted. 

Results from the study provide strong evidence that the order generated substantial public health benefits via reduced coronavirus-related mortality.

“However, our back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that California’s stay-at-home order generated eight to fourteen job losses per coronavirus case averted and 400 to 450 job losses per life saved. This tradeoff will be at the heart of policymakers’ future decisions about when to lift the orders and the degree to which social distancing will be relaxed,” Sabia said.

The CHEPS team’s analysis may inform policymakers' future decisions about when to lift orders restricting movement and the degree to which physical distancing should be relaxed. The widespread adoption of such orders calls for careful and thoughtful planning. 

“Our findings provide reassurance to worried families that staying at home does work in producing important short-term health benefits,” McNichols said. 

In their paper, the research team noted that, by early April, more than 90 countries in the world — about half of the global population — was either asked or ordered to remain home due to COVID-19. 

“In the absence of a vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19 in the short term, politicians will face difficult decisions over policies that avert or postpone COVID-19-related illness, and at the same time cause economic insecurity and poverty,” Sabia said.

With these research findings available, Sabia said the team will now explore the degree to which the California experience is generalizable to other states. 

“We plan to examine the extent to which temporary shelter-in-place orders generate net improvements in health or mainly redistribute coronavirus-related illness over time.”

The research is supported with funding from SDSU’s Center for Health Economics & Policy Studies (CHEPS) and grant support from both the Charles Koch Foundation and the Troesh Family Foundation. 

Additional Newly Released Studies (Edited May 19, 2020): The Center for Health Economics & Policy Studies announces additional COVID-19-related studies: