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While they may not be 100 percent effective, lockdowns have helped us in the fight against COVID-19. brightstars/Getty Images
  • Countries around the world turned to lockdowns to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
  • While lockdowns may not be 100 percent effective, studies show that they do help greatly reduce the transmission of the coronavirus.
  • However, studies also show that those who are able to participate in lockdowns benefit more from them than those who have to work in high-risk environments.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

While countries around the world turn to lockdowns to help stop the spread of COVID-19, some people question the method’s effectiveness and even forgo the facts to spread misinformation.

For instance, a New York Post article misrepresented data from a UCSF study, in which the senior author of the paper Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, professor and chair of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF, stated, “The early shutdown worked for California. Mortality rates that were rising early in the pandemic dropped substantially in a timeframe that coincides with the shutdown. But, importantly, not all Californians seemed to benefit.”

Bibbins-Domingo goes on to discuss that nearly 20,000 more Californians died in the first 6 months of the pandemic than would have been expected to die in a typical year, with a disproportionate number of those deaths occurring among older adults, Black or Latino residents, or those who had not completed high school.

The study shows that those who are able to participate in lockdowns benefit more from them than those who have to work in high-risk environments.

However, the New York Post article misinterprets this information to mean lockdowns do not work.

They do.

Dr. Bruce E. Hirsch, attending physician and assistant professor in the infectious disease division of Northwell Health in New York, says while lockdowns will never be 100 percent effective in eliminating the risk of exposure to COVID-19 because people have to grocery shop and care for people in need, that doesn’t mean they are pointless.

“The critics can point out the limitations to lockdowns and say, ‘See the lockdown isn’t perfect and the vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective.’ While they are correct, they are missing what’s important, which is that public health measures all reinforce each other and help reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 by a lot,” Hirsch told Healthline.

Lockdowns have been used for centuries as a way to slow the spread of disease, all the way back to the 14th century, as a response to the Black Death plague that spread across Europe.

Dr. Scott Braunstein, medical director of Sollis Health in Los Angeles, explains that lockdowns are a temporary measure that are used to slow the spread of disease and help buy time for scientists to track the spread, learn more about the disease, and develop treatments.

“Lockdowns become imperative when our medical system is at risk of becoming overwhelmed, to prevent avoidable morbidity and mortality, as a result of lack of medical resources,” Braunstein told Healthline.

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, this was the goal of lockdowns, which was referred to as “flattening the curve.”

“Lockdowns at that time were successful in preventing millions more cases of COVID-19, and saving thousands of lives,” said Braunstein.

More than 552,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19, and about 1,000 people per day continue to lose their lives from the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“We owe it to ourselves to be as aggressive as we can to contain this virus,” said Hirsch.

Because the coronavirus spreads both by droplets and aerosol, you can contract it when you breathe air into your respiratory passages that has the virus in it.

“We know that the ways to prevent SARS-CoV-2 from being transmitted from one person to the other is to not get exposed. The idea of avoiding the virus in the environment includes distance, and it’s not just 3 feet or 6 feet. We know aerosol travels much further, so social distance as a strategy is helpful, but so are other measures, such as wearing masks and ventilation,” Hirsch said.

The longer amount of time you’re in an environment where the virus is, increases your chances of being exposed.

“So if you have a mask on that is 50 percent effective and are in an environment for 15 minutes, your chances of exposure [greatly] increases if you are in that same environment for an hour,” Hirsch added.

Braunstein said that lockdowns were initially effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in many parts of the United States when the general public was in support of them and abided by them.

“However, the U.S. did not take advantage of this window to develop widespread and aggressive testing and contact tracing protocols that could have had more long-term benefit,” he said.

Braunstein also pointed out that this is in contrast to countries like Israel and Australia where there have been under 1,000 deaths from COVID-19 so far.

Those countries also continue to use targeted lockdowns to suppress local spikes of cases. They have robust systems of testing and tracing, and more widespread buy-in from their citizens too.

He added that the virus mutated quickly from its first outbreak in Wuhan, China, to the time it got to Europe.

Hirsch explained that if a virus has adapted to be more transmissible, then measures that might have been adequate for an earlier outbreak are no longer adequate.

“A lot of the people in the public health field are remarking on the fact that we are seeing more and more [of the U.K. strain] in the U.S., and the mitigation methods — wearing masks, social distancing — will have to be made more rigorous, if we’re going to have a chance of being able to contain a virus that is better adapted to be transmitted from person to person,” he said.

In addition, Braunstein added, that many other countries enacted national policies in terms of COVID-19 response, while the United States mainly left the decision to the discretion of each state.

In fact, some critics of lockdowns will compare cities or states in the United States where there were stricter quarantine measures to those that were more relaxed, and use this as evidence that the stricter measures were ineffective, Braunstein pointed out.

“There are many factors that are at play, and it is difficult to know what would have been the outcome in stricter states, had they not enacted those measures,” he said.

For instance, he said that in a state like California, where they have among the lowest number of hospital and ICU beds per capita, they were able to avoid completely overwhelming the medical system.

“Those of us on the front lines know exactly how close we were to the system failing, which would have led to a devastating outcome of thousands of unnecessary deaths,” he said.

Lack of national policy and politicization of the COVID-19 response are the main reasons lockdowns varied from state to state, according to Braunstein.

“Economic pressures led many governors to relax restrictions earlier than was advisable. People in certain parts of the country felt that acts such as wearing masks and social distancing were a symbol of political party, and willfully disregarded any precautions as a way to show loyalty to a party or leader,” he said.

While Hirsch and Braunstein believe lockdowns help curtail the spread of COVID-19, they both note that lockdowns also result in negative financial, psychological, and other health-related ramifications.

Braunstein hopes that going forward, the United States follows the lead of countries like Australia that use targeted, limited lockdowns (as short as 3 days), in areas where spikes occur, in order to prevent widespread disease.

Hirsch hopes society finds more creative and better ways to live with the virus that don’t require isolation.

“I’d be interested to see application of techniques that healthcare workers use in the hospitals more widespread throughout society, so we can be safe and interact with each other and be active and have our children and those coping with mental stress be supported during this time,” he said.