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How The US Response To COVID-19 Stacks Up Versus Italy, Spain And More

How The US Response To COVID-19 Stacks Up Versus Italy, Spain And More

The coronavirus (COVID-19) was in the U.S. for at least 41 days before the first state declared an emergency. It took another 11 days for the White House to restrict travel outside of China, and another three to declare a national emergency.

The first regional lockdown took effect on day 58, and the first state issued stay-at-home orders on day 60.


As the chart above suggests, countries similar to the U.S. were generally quicker to react to new infections. Italy began to quarantine affected towns on the 23rd day after the virus arrived. Spanish provinces went into lockdown on Spain’s 24th day.

South Korea restricted mass gatherings on its 33rd day with the virus — and it stopped short of effecting any more invasive policies. The country instead embraced a strategy of test, test, quarantine, test. Germany employed a similar monitoring system and did not begin to ban gatherings until its 44th day with the coronavirus.

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Did a particular policy response make a difference? It’s hard to tell.

Based on official case counts, it's difficult to judge the significance of the speed or severity with which governments restricted travel and socialization had in stopping the spread of the disease. Germany and South Korea kept their rates low with delayed or minimal interventions, while Italy and Spain suffered early surges despite earlier, invasive interventions.

Case counts, even those reported by the World Health Organization, do not necessarily reflect the true spread of disease, so they don’t likely communicate much about policy efficacy.

Some countries, like the U.S., reserved testing only for people with symptoms, so their “official” numbers did not capture asymptomatic infections. Given this underreporting, the U.S. trend line may not be meaningfully comparable to that of countries that undertook larger-scale testing and captured higher proportions of their infected populations, like Germany or South Korea.

In other words, without accurate — or confidently proportional — measures of COVID-19 incidence rates, it is difficult to identify how policies enacted at particular points on a country’s timeline actually affected the spread of the disease, let alone compare that country’s success rate to that of a peer.

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