Lockdowns did not save lives

Coming out of the pandemic, one of the biggest questions in policy research has been whether COVID-19 restrictions hurt or helped our state. And one of the ways through which researchers analyze the effectiveness of lockdowns is by looking at whether they saved lives. And according to a study reported by KARE 11 news that compared Minnesota to our neighbors, our state indeed did better in the number of COVID-19 deaths and cases, ergo the restrictions saved lives.

According to data available on July 1, 2021, the difference in the COVID death numbers in the Upper Midwest is striking.

Minnesota has the lowest death rate since the start of the pandemic – 136 deaths per 100,000.

Wisconsin – where COVID restrictions were imposed in population centers like Milwaukee and Madison but were blocked statewide by Republican lawmakers – wasn’t far behind at 139 deaths.

In Iowa and North Dakota – where Republican governors opposed most restrictions – the CDC data shows the death rate was significantly higher than Minnesota.

In Iowa, the corresponding death rate was 194.

But did the lockdowns really save lives in Minnesota? A deeper analysis casts doubt on that statement. Let us take, for example, updated CDC data showing that overdose deaths increased 35 percent in Minnesota and 29 percent nationally in 2020, a trend for which the main culprit was the lockdowns.

Overdose deaths soared to a record 93,000 last year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. government reported Wednesday.

That estimate far eclipses the high of about 72,000 drug overdose deaths reached the previous year and amounts to a 29% increase.

“This is a staggering loss of human life,” said Brandon Marshall, a Brown University public health researcher who tracks overdose trends.

The nation was already struggling with its worst overdose epidemic but clearly “COVID has greatly exacerbated the crisis,” he added.

Lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions isolated those with drug addictions and made treatment harder to get, experts said.

It is definitely possible that to some extent, lockdown orders prevented some COVID-19 deaths. However, lockdown orders also cut access to some health care services, and in so doing, actually increased deaths from other causes, like overdoses. So, statistically speaking, looking only at COVID-19 mortality does not provide a good picture of whether lockdown orders saved lives or not.

Luckily a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) provides a better way of analyzing the effect of lockdowns on mortality. The study uses excess mortality, which compares the number of all deaths at a given time from expected deaths, to analyze whether lockdowns potentially reduced COVID-19 deaths without increasing non-COVID deaths.

The authors of the study found no evidence that lockdowns saved lives. In fact, lockdown policies were associated with an increase in excess deaths in the weeks following their implementation. And additionally, the study found no evidence that states which implemented lockdown orders earlier (or had them for a longer period) than others faced lower excess deaths.

Looking at how Minnesota performed when it comes to deaths from other causes, like overdose or excessive alcoholism, it is easy to see that lockdowns lead to an increase in non-COVID deaths. According to the CDC, Minnesota’s 35 percent increase in overdose deaths was the highest among its neighbors. Our neighbors experienced comparatively lower rates of growth in overdose-related deaths in 2020. In fact, South Dakota even saw a decline in overdose-related deaths.

Indeed Minnesota has a lower COVID-19 death rate among its neighbors, but that is no cause to celebrate lockdowns. COVID-19 restrictions came with their own disruptions that cost extra lives, as research keeps showing.