Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, as governors in the United States closed businesses and schools to slow the spread of the virus, people in the South stayed at home at lower rates than residents of other regions of the country, according to a Yale report. guided study.
The study, published in the journal PLOS One, linked U.S. census data with anonymized geolocation data from a nationally representative sample of more than 20 million mobile devices in 2020 to gain a clearer picture of regional differences in physical distancing behavior and how this pattern differs across countries. race and socioeconomic status. It found that the highest rates of stay at home from April to December last year were generally in the Northeast, while the South lagged behind other regions during that period. According to the study, physical distancing was less common in rural areas than in cities and suburbs.
The study provides evidence that differences in physical distance patterns were unlikely to have caused the disproportionate numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths among black Americans across the country. It found that across regions, the stay-at-home rate was generally higher in census block groups — neighborhoods and other areas home to 600 to 3,000 people — with higher percentages of black residents. This contradicts the narrative that black Americans were physically less distant than other racial and ethnic groups, based on media reports that focused only on major cities.
“The COVID-19 virus struck different parts of the United States at different times and with different intensity, making it important to understand trends in physical distancing behavior by region and differential patterns by race and socioeconomic status within each region,” said Emma Zang , assistant professor of sociology at Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the study’s lead author. “A better understanding of these regional and local physical distancing trends can help policymakers focus on specific areas for strategies for mitigating COVID-19 and achieving public health.”
Before the pandemic broke out in March 2020, about 25% of people were at home in the Northeast, Midwest, South and West on any given day, the study found. In almost all regions a sharp increase can be seen in the percentage of people who stay at home after school closures and those who stay at home. On April 1, about 46% of people in the Northeast stayed at home, the highest level of physical distancing among the four regions. On the same date, 37% of people in the South stayed at home, the lowest percentage among regions. Physical distancing rates in the Midwest fell below those in the South from July to October, but the Southern region had the lowest rates from the start of the pandemic through the end of 2020, according to the study.
By June, physical distance had declined sharply in all regions, never reaching levels reached in early spring, the researchers found. This pattern emerged even though severe COVID-19 outbreaks hit regions at different times of the year, with the northeast bearing the brunt of the first wave of the pandemic and the west and south becoming hot spots over the summer, they explained.
The researchers cited previous studies showing that structural factors, such as poverty or low-quality housing, can make it difficult for people to maintain physical distance. Many of these social and structural challenges — including higher poverty rates, limited access to health insurance, and high rates of poor health behavior — are more common in the South than in other regions, creating disadvantages in implementing physical distancing policies and reducing of COVID-19, the researchers said. They noted that rural areas, which the research showed had lower social distancing rates than cities, face similar disadvantages.
“Our work provides further evidence that people’s ability to physically distance themselves is determined by social and structural factors, such as whether they have the ability to work from home, have paid sick leave, or live near a good supermarket,” Yale said. College senior Nathan Nathan. Kim, a research assistant at Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies, and a co-author of the study. “In other words, physical distancing is about much more than an individual’s decision; it is also about how our society is set up to make these choices possible for some and not for others.”
The stay-at-home rate was higher in wealthier and more educated census populations with fewer frontline workers, although wealthy individuals across the country became increasingly mobile in the summer of 2020, the study said.
“Our findings confirm that people’s socioeconomic status — their income, education level and job type — is an important factor in their level of exposure to COVID-19 and ability to adhere to mitigation strategies,” Zang said. “The pandemic has shown how deeply entrenched social and structural inequalities lead to different health outcomes in neighborhoods across the United States.”
Jessica West of Duke University and Christina Pao of the University of Oxford were co-authors of the study.