Editor’s note: PolitiFact, which is owned by the Poynter Institute, is fact-checking misinformation about the coronavirus. This article is republished with permission, and originally appeared here.
If your time is short
- Experts in public health and epidemiology said Ingraham’s claim is wrong. There’s plenty of science behind social distancing.
- Two influential 2007 studies looked at the 1918 influenza pandemic and found that places with layered and sustained social distancing policies were generally better off.
- The coronavirus is believed to spread mainly among people in close contact.
Laura Ingraham: “There was no real scientific basis for believing that” social distancing would be necessary, “since it had never been studied.”
Fox News host Laura Ingraham falsely claimed on her TV show that there’s “no real scientific basis” behind social distancing, the practice of keeping distance from others to reduce the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19.
“Although intuitively I think it probably seemed like social distancing would be necessary, there was no real scientific basis for believing that, since it had never been studied,” Ingraham said.
Americans have widely followed social distancing directives to “flatten the curve” of new coronavirus cases and prevent hospitals from being stretched beyond capacity. In the absence of widespread testing, most Americans have supported such mitigation efforts.
But scattered protests have also captured attention and led pundits like Ingraham and fellow Fox News host Tucker Carlson to call for an end to more statewide shutdowns as U.S. deaths due to the coronavirus top 70,000.
Members of the White House coronavirus task force have encouraged social distancing. President Donald Trump credited nationwide closures with saving “millions of lives” as recently as May 3 in a town hall.
But while it’s difficult to assess the exact impact of social distancing policies so far, experts told us Ingraham’s claim is wrong. There’s plenty of science behind social distancing.
“It’s one of the few tools that we know works in the case of an unknown, novel virus such as this,” said Thomas Novotny, an epidemiologist at San Diego State University.
Fox News did not respond to requests for comment.
Studies of the 1918 influenza are informative
With the coronavirus still running its course, studies on the impact of mitigation efforts are only just emerging. But past respiratory disease outbreaks have been informative, experts said.
On her show, Ingraham cited a recent study on the effects of lockdowns in western Europe and a clip of Stanford University biologist Michael Levitt calling European lockdowns a “mistake.”
She also highlighted a recent CBS News interview in which Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said mitigation “didn’t work as well as we expected.”
Gottlieb has himself encouraged social distancing, however. And the study of European countries, which hasn’t yet been peer reviewed, doesn’t say social distancing is futile, but rather that social distancing measures “have approximately the same effects” as full lockdowns.
“My work does not question the efficiency of social distancing,” said Thomas Meunier, the researcher behind the study.
Charles Branas, chair of the epidemiology department at Columbia University, said social distancing “is a fundamental way to interrupt the transmission of disease in populations.”
“To say that there was no scientific basis for believing that is like saying there is no scientific basis for epidemiology,” he said.
The concept of limiting person-to-person contact dates back centuries. But non-pharmaceutical interventions, as the practices we associate with social distancing are known, became official U.S. policy under President George W. Bush in 2007, according to the New York Times.
The shift came after researchers looked back at government responses to the 1918 influenza, which killed about 675,000 Americans. Elaine Nsoesie, assistant professor of global health at Boston University, said that pandemic saw many social distancing measures put in place, including bans on gatherings and school closures.
One study in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined social distancing in 43 cities for about 24 weeks in 1918 and 1919. It found cities suffered less when they implemented social distancing swiftly, comprehensively and for a sustained period of time.
A second study, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on 17 U.S. cities. It found those with early, layered interventions had flatter epidemic curves and peak death rates about 50% lower than cities that didn’t take similar steps.
Those findings became the basis for the policies adopted by the Bush administration and later modified under President Barack Obama.
Studies of the 1918 pandemic “indicated that early implementation of multiple social distancing interventions was associated with a lower death rate at the peak of the epidemic,” Nsoesie said.
David Hamer, professor of global health and medicine at Boston University, told us Ingraham’s claim is incorrect: “Non-pharmaceutical interventions have been shown to help reduce the overall number of cases and virus-related mortality.”
That’s because shrinking gatherings “should lead to less exposure to potentially infected individuals and thus reduce the potential for transmission,” Hamer said.
Other evaluations of social distancing, handwashing, mask-wearing and related interventions have been compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, especially as they relate to influenza pandemics. (See page 23 of this 2017 CDC document, for example.)
Social distancing and COVID-19
What we know about COVID-19 also suggests that social distancing works, experts said.
Hamer cited the Imperial College of London’s projection that the U.S. could see up to 2.2 million COVID-19 deaths if it did nothing to slow the spread, as well as a not-yet-peer-reviewed study from Swiss researchers that estimated the impact of various interventions on new cases.
The Swiss researchers said non-pharmaceutical interventions contributed to “a strong overall reduction” in new cases, with venue closures, border closures, work-from-home policies and limits on large gatherings having the highest impact.
The coronavirus spreads mainly among people in close contact, through respiratory droplets launched into the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, according to the CDC.
“Those droplets, as they’re falling out of the air, someone else may inhale them or get them into their mouth or their eyes,” said Johns Hopkins University’s Lauren Sauer on a university podcast. “And that’s why you have to be less than 6 feet away to really be at risk.”
Ingraham said “there was no real scientific basis for believing that” social distancing would be necessary, “since it had never been studied.”
Experts we spoke to cited a number of studies — including two influential analyses of the 1918 influenza — that show social distancing can help slow the spread of new infectious diseases.
We rate this statement False.
PolitiFact, which is fact-checking misinformation about the coronavirus, is part of the Poynter Institute. See more of their fact-checks at politifact.com/coronavirus.