(Jon Miltimore, Foundation for Economic Education) Last summer, NBC News reported that New York state health officials were stunned by the number of hospitalized patients who said they had contracted COVID-19 while staying at home.
The data, collected from 113 hospitals who surveyed patients over a three-day span, suggested more than two-thirds had contracted the virus while staying at home.
“Sixty-six percent of the people were at home, which is shocking to us,” Governor Andrew Cuomo told a gaggle of reporters at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in May. The percentage far outnumbered other more likely places, such as nursing homes (18 percent), assisted living facilities (4 percent), and homeless shelters/streets (2 percent).
“This is a surprise,” Cuomo said. “We were thinking that maybe we were going to find a higher percent of essential employees who were getting sick because they were going to work — that these may be nurses, doctors, transit workers. That’s not the case. They were predominantly at home.”
A year later, a new study sheds light on the mystery.
A new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper offers fresh evidence to show stay-at-home orders may have backfired.
“Micro evidence contradicts the public-health ideal in which households would be places of solitary confinement and zero transmission,” writes University of Chicago economist Casey B. Mulligan. “Instead, the evidence suggests that ‘households show the highest transmission rates’ and that ‘households are high-risk settings for the transmission of [COVID-19].’”
At first glance, the findings are a bit surprising. Models early in the pandemic assumed less transmission would occur in households. This explains why Cuomo was surprised when he learned 66 percent of those hospitalized with COVID had been staying at home—it ran counter to the pre-pandemic science, which showed viruses are more commonly spread in work environments and schools.
But Mulligan says that is the mistake. Modelers were basing their assumptions on pre-pandemic work and school environments, which didn’t have the safety precautions in place that so many institutions implemented in the wake of COVID.
“Schools, businesses, and other organizations implemented a range of prevention protocols – from adjusting airflow to installing physical barriers to monitoring compliance to administering their own testing services – that households did not, and perhaps could not,” Mulligan writes.
It turns out these measures actually made a difference. Mulligan offers specific examples.
For example, the Duke Health system—which consists of several hospitals and some 180 clinical practices in 10 counties in North Carolina—and 11 meat processing facilities in Nebraska saw infections rates plummet after implementing various safety precautions, such as erecting barriers between employees. In the case of Duke Health, an hour worked at the hospital system became exponentially safer (by a factor of three) than an hour worked outside the health system.
The irony, of course, is that even as work environments were increasingly becoming safer, many Americans were being forced to stay home in environments that were less ideal—such as crowded, poorly ventilated housing.