Optimal timing and effectiveness of COVID-19 outbreak responses in China: a modelling study.


We developed a mathematical model reflecting SARS-CoV-2 transmission dynamics in an age-stratified population. The model simulates health and economic outcomes from Dec 1, 2019 through Mar 31, 2020 for cities including Wuhan, Chongqing, Beijing, and Shanghai in China. We considered differences in timing and duration of three mitigation strategies in the early phase of the epidemic: city-wide quarantine on Wuhan, travel history screening and isolation of travelers from Wuhan to other Chinese cities, and general social distancing.

In January 2020, an outbreak of atypical pneumonia caused by a novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, was reported in Wuhan, China. On Jan 23, 2020, the Chinese government instituted mitigation strategies to control spread. Most modeling studies have focused on projecting epidemiological outcomes throughout the pandemic. However, the impact and optimal timing of different mitigation approaches have not been well-studied.

Our model estimated that implementing all three mitigation strategies one week earlier would have averted 35% of deaths in Wuhan (50% in other cities) with a 7% increase in economic impacts (16-18% in other cities). One week's delay in mitigation strategy initiation was estimated to decrease economic cost by the same amount, but with 35% more deaths in Wuhan and more than 80% more deaths in the other cities. Of the three mitigation approaches, infections and deaths increased most rapidly if initiation of social distancing was delayed. Furthermore, social distancing of working-age adults was most critical to reducing COVID-19 outcomes versus social distancing among children and/or the elderly.

Optimizing the timing of epidemic mitigation strategies is paramount and involves weighing trade-offs between preventing infections and deaths and incurring immense economic impacts. City-wide quarantine was not as effective as city-wide social distancing due to its much higher daily cost than social distancing. Under typical economic evaluation standards, the optimal timing for the full set of control measures would have been much later than Jan 23, 2020 (status quo).

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