Opportunity for Health

Our lab and the COVID-19 pandemic

Our lab has collaborated with researchers across the United States to lend insights on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on health and well-being. This research has helped us better understand the intersection between economics, social policy, and health, and has revealed a number of lessons for policymakers that will be relevant even after the pandemic ends.

Here, we provide a brief summary of just a few of the studies we worked on related to COVID-19:

Early in the pandemic, Alex Tsai led a study titled  “Social distancing to slow the US Covid-19 epidemic: Longitudinal pretest-posttest comparison group study.” This work was among the first to show that statewide social distancing measures and decreased COVID-19 infection and death rates. In addition to statewide policies, we also examined institutional factors that shaped disease risk. Atheendar Venkataramani collaborated on a study led by Adam Dean (George Washington University) and Simeon Kimmel (Boston University), which found that unionized nursing homes in New York State had much lower rates of resident mortality from COVID-19 than non-unionized nursing homes.

We also collaborated on studies examining COVID-19 risk behaviors. In the paper “Better Late Than Never: Trends in Covid-19 Infection Rates, Risk Perceptions, and Behavioral Responses in the USA,” Atheendar Venkataramani teamed up with Alyssa Bilinski at Harvard and colleagues to analyze Facebook survey data from nearly 10 million respondents over a nearly 1 year period. They found that, on average, Americans responded to rising infection rates by adopting precautionary behaviors such as masking and physical distancing. This research highlights the importance of accurate public health messaging and information, particularly given that the public is clearly responding to such information. In a paper with Nolan Kavanaugh and Rishi Goel (both from Penn) “County-Level Socioeconomic and Political Predictors of Distancing for Covid-19”, our team looked to further expand our understanding of precautionary behaviors. By integrating anonymized cell phone tracking data with county-level indicators over a 1 year period, this study showed significant gradients in engagement with physical distancing by income and political beliefs. The fact that these behaviors persisted nearly a year into the pandemic suggests that efforts to mitigate key tradeoffs (e.g., low-income people being unable to physically distance given the need to work) or political polarization suggests that national efforts to encourage precautionary behaviors left much to be desired.

We investigated the indirect impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on health. A paper led by Robin Ortiz (Penn) and colleagues, titled, “Assessing Child Abuse Hotline Inquiries in the Wake of Covid-19: Answering the Call, found, using novel data, a substantial uptick in the number of calls to a child abuse hotline in late January of 2020 as the pandemic rose to prominence in the United States. The demographics of callers during the pandemic also differed from past years. In particular, calls from school reporters decreased while those from other social networks (neighbors, relatives, and friends) increased.

COVID-19 drastically impacted the economic fortunes and employment status of millions of Americans, all of which have implications for health and well-being. In collaboration with Julia Raifman (Boston University) on the study, “Association Between Receipt of Unemployment Insurance and Food Insecurity Among People Who Lost Employment During the Covid-19 Pandemic in the United States”, we analyzed the role of policy in mitigating the effect of the pandemic. We found that enhanced unemployment insurance benefits led to large reductions in food insecurity among low- and middle-income Americans in the early stages of the pandemic.

Finally, to learn more about our work and the connection between the Covid-19 pandemic, the economy, racial and socioeconomic disparities, and health, check out this presentation (from November 2020).