A centerpiece of President Trump’s claimed response to the Covid crisis was enacting travel bans on China in February and Europe in March of this year. On the surface these could be viewed as bold moves with major significance, unfortunately the facts show that in reality they had virtually no impact on where we are today in terms of the number of cases and deaths.
The President has consistently cited that his travel ban has saved millions of lives and was a primary means of defense until a vaccine is developed. Now over seven months since the first travel ban went into effect, the hindsight of history allows us to see that the bans have made very little difference in the relentless progression of the virus since then.
The facts behind this analysis are stark:
The China travel ban went into effect on February 2, 2020. Between December of the prior year and February 2020, over 750,000 people traveled from mainland China to the United States. This was during the same period that Covid was raging in Wuhan, China. We now know that the majority of people can carry the disease and be asymptomatic but still infectious. There is no way to exactly quantify how many people may have come to the U.S. before the ban that were carrying the disease, but given the easy transmissibility of the virus it is likely the number is in the thousands. Subsequently, before stay at home orders became more pervasive, super-spreader events would have infected a multitude of unaware victims.
Even after the ban went into effect, there were still loopholes for US citizens and some others which permitted another approximately 40,000 individuals to enter the country from China between February and April. This would further compound the number of potential spreaders given asymptomatic carriers and little monitoring of incoming people.
During the same December to February period, it is estimated that over 343,000 people arrived in the US from Italy, almost 419,000 from Spain, and 1.9 million from the UK. The ban on travel from much of continental Europe went into place on March 23 and from the UK a bit later. Once again, we know that the virus was beginning its major surge at this time throughout Europe, and it is likely that many thousands of asymptomatic carriers were coming through the US border, primarily in New York and cities along the East Coast.
Research has shown that the strain of Covid that caused such a dire impact on New York had its origin in Europe, not China. As has been noted by NY Governor Cuomo and many others, it is clear that the virus was already deeply embedded in that state before the ban came into effect. It is equally clear that it was not the travel ban that had an impact on ultimately stemming the severity of the virus on New York, but rather stay at home orders, masking, and social distancing.
Given the estimated one-to-two-week incubation time of the virus, the major increase in US Covid cases that began around April had to come from people already in the country versus post ban. Once in the virus had become embedded in certain key population centers in the US, as history has shown, it was just a matter of time before it would continue to spread to other states regardless of the travel ban. The timing of the spread may have been somewhat altered by the ban but not the ultimate breadth or impact of the virus.
As a side note, there is an associated false claim that the number of Covid deaths in the US is inflated because people with the disease often have co-morbidities and even though they perish due to these other ailments they are counted as Covid deaths. Again, the facts belie the assertions. Research has shown that comparing the total number of deaths in the US from all causes in 2020 up to August, versus a forecast based on generally expected total deaths based on prior years, there is an excess of over 200,000 fatalities versus historical prediction. Given this analysis, it is likely that the number of Covid caused deaths is actually higher than the official death totals.
The President has often cited recently that the travel ban was a key factor in limiting the death toll from reaching a projected 2 million people, so 200,000 victims was really a successful result given what might have been. However, the underlying data cited actually does not support this at all. The oft-quoted two million number comes from a report issued in mid-March from researchers at the Imperial College in London. The notes to this report clearly state that this number was derived based on what could happen if NO steps at mitigation were implemented by the US. No travel bans, no masks, no social distancing. The term was not common at the time, but now we know that this number is associated with the strategy that has become more broadly identified as “herd immunity”. The concept is to let the virus run its course and when it has reached a certain level, generally pegged at 50 to 70% of the population, the infection rate will begin to subside. The two million forecasted deaths in a herd immunity scenario has now been corroborated by other researchers with that being on the low end and figures reaching three million on the high end. The bottom line is that there is no study that shows that specifically without the travel ban the number would have been two million deaths or any number substantially different from the current situation.
Was a travel ban a good move? Certainly, with so many uncertainties about the virus at the time, the step of initiating travel bans was a smart first step in seeking to limit the issue. Yet in retrospect, the virus already had the US in a chokehold before the bans came into being, we just did not know it. The focus needed to shift more quickly from protecting the border to mitigating what was already here. Whatever anyone chooses to believe about the President’s handling of the virus during this more than half year, the travel ban should not be used as the hallmark for the response nor a key factor in minimizing its impact.
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