How many lives did social distancing save?

Although we’ll never know exactly how many lives our masking and other social distancing saved from Covid, it is pretty sure that it saved over 30,000 lives from dying of the flu because the fatality rate from the flu dropped to practically nothing.  That is an amazing result.

According to the CDC, so far we have had a total of about 500 deaths from the flu this season compared with a usual average of over 35,000. This graph compares overall mortality from respiratory illness over time (red line) with just influenza mortality (orange shading and right-axis scale):

We’ll always think about respiratory illnesses differently in future years. For example, I expect to see a lot more routine mask wearing during influenza season like common practice in several Asian nations.

The first time I wore a mask in public, I was at a supermarket at the beginning of the pandemic back when the CDC was still saying that masks weren’t necessary because of the mistaken belief that the virus was not airborne and I got strange looks from almost everyone in the nearly empty store.  They probably wondered if I was infected because the CDC was telling people to reserve masks for sick people and healthcare professionals at the time.  One guy walked up beside me at the milk shelf and when he suddenly noticed my mask, he jumped back with an expression of horror as if I were wearing a super-scary Halloween costume.  He immediately wheeled around and scurried away.

That won’t happen again in my lifetime because most of us are used to masks now.  Although masks make some people furious for political reasons, my guess is that it will cease to have political valence as time goes by.  It is shocking how much passion mask mandates have caused for a small percent of Americans, but it is probably mostly because of political thought leaders who have been stoking anti-mask sentiment and they will turn to other causes as people have gotten accustomed to masks.  It isn’t an issue with partisan valence in Asian countries where public mask wearing has been normal for decades already. 

My wife sat next to a man on a flight who was not wearing his mask and when she asked him to please use the mask, he retorted, “Shut up you stupid bitch.”  It could have been worse.  There has been a surge of assaults when flight attendants ask passengers to follow the mask-wearing rules that they agreed to when they purchased their tickets. 

Here are the counties with the highest willingness to wear masks (darker shading) according to surveys.


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