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UW Economists Examine Potential Impacts of Physical Distancing

June 24, 2020

Physical distancing measures to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus appear to have dramatically reduced the number of deaths that would have occurred otherwise, University of Wyoming researchers say.

That’s primarily because physical distancing reduces the rate of infection, but it’s also because of the associated reduction in air pollution -- which is estimated to be responsible for about 4.2 million premature deaths per year around the globe, up to 250,000 of those in the United States.

“In the U.S., deploying a physical distancing policy with optimal timing and intensity would save millions of lives and generate significant net benefits in comparison to an uncontrolled scenario with no physical distancing,” the UW research team wrote. “We also find that thousands more deaths are averted due to the reduction of air pollution emissions from physical distancing.”

The new research, which will appear in the journal Environmental and Resource Economics, is the latest in a series of coronavirus-related studies conducted by UW economists Assistant Professor Stephen Newbold, Professor David Finnoff, Assistant Professor Linda Thunstrom, graduate student Madison Ashworth, from Star Valley, and Professor Jason Shogren, all in the College of Business.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the UW team received significant international attention for its research showing that the potential economic benefits of physical distancing, due to lives saved, outweigh projected damage to the U.S. economy by an estimated $5.2 trillion.

In their new analysis, the economists developed a more detailed model that shows just over 4 million people in the U.S. could die if no physical distancing or other measures were used to control the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak. The model developed by the UW researchers indicates that, with optimized physical distancing measures in place, about 2.5 million fewer lives would be lost to COVID-19 -- along with 6,000 to 60,000 more as a result of reduced air pollution.

Even with projected declines in U.S. gross domestic product of just under 6 percent to nearly 8 percent as a result of COVID-19 distancing, the benefits of lives saved more than justify the measures, the researchers say.

“Our model examines the optimal duration and intensity of physical distancing measures aimed to control the spread of COVID-19, considering the trade-off between the lives saved by physical distancing -- both directly from stemming the spread of the virus and indirectly from reductions in air pollution during the period of physical distancing -- and the short- and long-run economic costs that ensue from such measures,” says Newbold, the new article’s lead author. “To our knowledge, ours is the first modeling study to incorporate a link between physical distancing and air pollution, as well as the interaction between pollution and the COVID-19 fatality rate.”

The researchers note that their study does not take into account the potential benefits resulting from the use of cloth face protection or testing and tracing programs, nor the potential side-effects of physical distancing, such as increased domestic abuse; adverse mental health effects of school closures; and increased rates of suicide due to social isolation.

The economists also suggest further research into the impacts of long-term changes that may result from the pandemic. Those include the possibility that many people will continue to choose remote work and distance education; continue to travel less domestically and internationally; move from urban centers to rural areas; change their eating habits; and spend more time in the outdoors.

“If COVID-19 leads to behavioral changes as durable as those spurred by past epidemics, the environmental implications of the outbreak may extend far beyond the short-term air pollution impacts examined here,” the researchers conclude.

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