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Stay-at-home orders saved hundreds of thousands, report finds

A new analysis says nearly 250,000 people in the nation's 30 largest cities are alive today because of strict stay-at-home orders issued by local and state governments.

The report, from the Urban Health Collaborative at the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University, found the stay-at-home orders likely reduced the number of coronavirus deaths by 232,878 and prevented 2.1 million people from requiring hospitalization.

The analysis calculated the number of deaths caused by the coronavirus versus a model compiled by mathematicians Gabriel Goh and Steven De Keninck that showed what might have happened had Americans not taken the drastic social distancing steps that governors and local elected officials have ordered and encouraged over the last few months.

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The figures are estimates, but they are meant to illustrate the positive effects such sacrifices have created, said Jennifer Kolker, associate dean for public health practice at the Dornsife School.

"What we really wanted to do was to say this matters. Doing nothing is in fact doing something," Kolker told The Hill. "We really wanted to give city leaders the opportunity to say to their residents and their jurisdictions, 'Hey folks, look what you did, you saved lives, you kept people out of the hospital.'"

Even in hard-hit areas like New York City, where tens of thousands of people have died, the figures could have been worse. Under the city's stay-at-home order, issued by Mayor Bill de BlasioBill de BlasioLawyer who inspired ABC's 'For Life' to run for mayor of New York Rockefeller Center Christmas tree viewing limited to 5 minutes The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Coast-to-coast fears about post-holiday COVID-19 spread MORE (D) on March 23, the researchers found 24,062 lives were saved and nearly a quarter million people who might have been hospitalized were not.

In Los Angeles County, where a stay-at-home order took effect March 19, almost 40,000 lives were saved compared to what was likely under worst-case scenarios. More than 8,800 lives have been saved in King County, Wash., the epicenter of one of the first big coronavirus outbreaks. Philadelphia's stay-at-home order saved 6,202 lives, the analysis found, and Chicago's order has saved 10,635 lives.

The analysis, conducted in conjunction with the Big Cities Health Coalition, focused on only the nation's 30 largest cities, meaning the actual number of lives saved across the nation is likely substantially higher. Early models that compared death counts if no preventative action was taken versus those that would occur under strict lockdowns showed a difference of millions of potential lives saved.

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Now, many of those cities are taking ginger steps toward reopening some businesses. In many cases, they still do not possess the testing capacity necessary to continue their progress in stamping out the virus.

That puts the onus on average Americans to continue to limit their activities, even if their governments allow them to open up again. Kolker said she worried that loosening restrictions could put many of those lives saved at risk once again.

"We're now moving into this very strange phase where states are starting to reopen, and whether or not reopening makes the most sense," Kolker said. "Lives have been saved. It doesn't mean we won't backpedal."

Research using cellphone data has showed more Americans are leaving home than they had over the past several weeks. Protests calling on governors to reopen cities have grown in recent weeks, though polls show the vast majority of Americans are unwilling to venture out unnecessarily.

In Wisconsin, viral photographs showed jam-packed bars and restaurants after the state Supreme Court blocked the governor's orders that those businesses stay closed.

Kolker said the analysis is meant to show residents that the disruption to daily lives has made a substantial difference.

"It's really abstract for individuals who are sitting at home doing nothing to think that they are doing something," Kolker said. "Public health really is about what each of us does. It's not just about what government tells us."