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Published March 01, 2021
When a University of Wyoming Department of Economics team produced a research paper on the net benefits to social distancing policies during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, team members anticipated that there would be a broad interest in their results.
What they did not expect, however, was the intense level of interest in their research last spring among national and global media, as well as the scientific community.
UW Associate Professor Linda Thunström was lead author of the article, titled “The Benefits and Costs of Using Social Distancing to Flatten the Curve for COVID-19.” Assistant Professor Stephen Newbold, Professors David Finnoff and Jason Shogren, and graduate student Madison Ashworth, of Star Valley, joined Thunström in producing the paper that was published in the Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis last April.
Last week, the UW economics team was notified by the journal’s awards committee that the paper was named best applied article for 2020. The journal editors will present the UW team’s award during the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis online annual meeting March 19.
“We are honored to receive this award. This recognition specifically from the Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis is perhaps the greatest quality stamp we could get of the rapid assessment we did of the net benefits of social distancing,” Thunström says. “We understood the importance of our analysis, and the importance of doing it well, and we are thrilled that the world-renowned expertise at the Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis approves of the work we did.”
Newbold says team members are grateful for the recognition because of how they developed the research in the early stages of the pandemic.
“The reward means a lot to us, especially since we had some fear at the time of getting too far out over our skis,” he says. “We conducted this analysis in the very early months of the pandemic, when much about the disease was still unknown.”
Last spring, aggressive social distancing policies were implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19 and shut down much of the U.S. economy. The UW economics team showed that these measures were economically justified, such that the potential benefits of social distancing in saving lives far outweighed the projected damage to the economy.
At the time the team started the analysis, most of the public discussion was about how to slow down the spread of the virus, and the resulting urgent need for lockdowns, while there was little talk about the effect on the economy from such policies, Thunström says.
Newbold adds that it seemed clear that the UW team was facing not only a severe public health emergency, but also a severe economic contraction.
“But, we did not have a clear picture of whether the beneficial effects, in terms of avoided COVID-19 infections and deaths, of the lockdowns and other control measures on offer would outweigh their economic costs, in terms of lost employment and income,” he says. “So, we set out to compare the two using the economist’s standard tool of benefit-cost analysis.”
Based on the team’s benchmark assumptions, the economic benefits of lives saved substantially outweighed the value of the projected losses to the U.S. economy, the economists wrote. Assuming that social distancing measures were adopted widely enough to reduce contact among individuals, the benefits of those policies would outweigh the economic costs by $5.2 trillion, the team found.
When the UW team’s paper was published, it was an immediate hit, with hundreds of media outlets around the world publishing the work.
“We anticipated that the economic consequences would rather quickly become noticeable, such that policymakers would need to consider the trade-offs that societies face when addressing the pandemic,” Thunström says. “Our study aimed to be helpful in that regard and, in that sense, we are very thankful for the media attention it got, since all of that hard work by journalists helped catapult our study to government agencies around the globe.”
Another set of lessons emerged from the sensitivities of the team’s model outputs to alternative input assumptions.
“Such uncertainties are unavoidable in the early stages of a pandemic involving a completely new infectious disease,” Newbold says. “This makes it difficult to calibrate a policy response that achieves the largest possible excess of benefits over costs.”
“Our results might not be applicable everywhere, but our study also offers a structure and suggests a modeling framework for how to think about the policy trade-offs,” Thunström adds.