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The Math Behind Social Distancing

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The math behind social distancing

The Math Behind Social Distancing

As we wait for scientists and healthcare professionals to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, there is another, more readily available tool at our disposal.

Social distancing, defined as measures taken to reduce physical contact, is the first line of defense for containing an infectious disease like COVID-19. That’s because these infections spread when people cough, sneeze, or touch surfaces on which the virus resides.

To help us grasp the impact these measures can actually have, today’s infographic illustrates how a reduction in social exposure can theoretically contain the spread of infection.

Theoretical Potential

The calculations used to create today’s infographic come from Signer Laboratory, a stem cell research lab located in the Moores Cancer Center at the University of California San Diego.

Using a summation formula makes it possible to estimate the number of new infections over a 30 day period, across three scenarios.

Scenario5 Day Period30 Day Period
No social distancing practiced1 person infects 2.5* others406 people infected as a result
50% reduction in social exposure1 person infects 1.25* others15 people infected as a result
75% reduction in social exposure1 person infects 0.625* others2.5 people infected as a result

*For estimations only. It is not possible to infect only a fraction of another person.

To arrive at the figures reported above, Robert A.J. Signer, Ph.D., and his team made a number of key assumptions.

First, they estimated the basic reproduction number (R0) of COVID-19 to be 2.5, a figure supported by recent research. This means that, on average, an infected individual will spread the disease to 2.5 other people.

Next, they assumed that an infected individual will unknowingly spread COVID-19 over the median five day incubation period. After this period, the individual will begin to develop symptoms, immediately self quarantine, and no longer pose a threat.

Finally, they assumed a direct linear correlation between social interactions and R0. This means that when an infected person reduces their physical contact with others by 50%, they also spread the disease by an amount 50% less.

Timing is Everything

While the figures above are the results of mathematical estimations, researchers have actually studied social distancing from a variety of angles.

One study used simulations to determine the magnitude and timing of social distancing measures required to prevent a pandemic. The distancing measures simulated were:

MeasureDetails
School closureTeachers and students spent weekday daytime cycles at home, rather than at school.
Increased case isolationUpon becoming symptomatic, adults (90%) and children (100%) would self quarantine for the duration of the infection.
Workplace non-attendanceEach day, a person had a 50% chance of staying home instead of attending their workplace.
Community contact reductionIndividuals reduced their physical contact with community members by half, each day.
Combination of all fourAll four measures combined. 

The results, for a community of 30,000 people and an epidemic with R=2.5, are charted below. We can define the final illness attack rate as the share of people from an at risk population who ultimately catch the disease.

power of early social distancing

Results showed that when no action was taken, 65% of the population contracted the disease. However, if a combination of all four distancing measures were implemented instead, the attack rates were:

  • 45% (distancing begins after a 4 week delay)
  • 21% (distancing begins after a 3 week delay)
  • 7% (distancing begins after a 2 week delay)

What’s clear is that social distancing was significantly more effective when implemented with minimal delay—the final illness attack rate rose quickest beyond the third week. These findings draw a parallel to the visualizations in today’s infographic, which showed us just how quickly a disease can spread.

Social distancing interventions are important as they represent the only … measure guaranteed to be available against a novel strain of influenza in the early phases of a pandemic.

Kelso, J.K., Milne, G.J. & Kelly, H., BMC Public Health 9, 117 (2009)

We arrive at a similar conclusion when it comes to the types of distancing measures implemented. In the simulations, none of the four measures taken on their own were able to have a similar effect as when they were combined.

We All Have a Part to Play

With the global number of COVID-19 cases still rising, many governments have issued quarantine orders and travel bans.

The math supports these decisions—reducing our physical contact with others, even when we aren’t experiencing any symptoms, is crucial. Studies like the one summarized above also prove that taking action sooner, rather than later, can go a long way in reducing the spread of infection.

The key takeaway from all of this? Social distancing is a powerful disease control tool, but only if we all participate.

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Personal Finance

Visualizing How the Pandemic is Impacting American Wallets

57% of U.S. consumers’ incomes have taken a hit during the pandemic. How do such financial anxieties affect the ability to pay bills on time?

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A Snapshot of U.S. Personal Finances During the Pandemic

If you’ve felt that you’ve needed to penny-pinch more during the pandemic, you’re not alone.

In the past seven months, 42% of U.S. consumers have missed paying one or more bills, while over a third (39%) believe they will need to skip payments in the future.

This visualization breaks down the state of U.S. consumers’ personal finances during the COVID-19 era, and projects into future concerns around savings.

Pandemic Personal Finances: Key Takeaways

Based on data from the doxoINSIGHTS Bills Pay Impact Report across 1,568 sampled households, three themes emerge:

  • 57% of consumers’ incomes have taken a hit in the past seven months
  • 70% have delayed discretionary spending on big purchases
  • 75% continue to be very worried about their future financial health

How do these anxieties translate into day-to-day consequences?

Pandemic Postpones Bill Payments

Unsurprisingly, worrying about personal finances also means that more Americans are deferring their bill payments during the pandemic. However, these vary depending on the type of bill, total amount, and immediate urgency.

Over a quarter (27%) of U.S. consumers report having missed a bill on their auto loans, followed by 26% for utilities and 25% on cable or internet costs.

The average cost of the above three bill types is $258—but that’s still a fraction of the two most expensive bills, mortgage or rent, which come in at $1,268 and $1,023 respectively.

Bill Type$ Value% Missed
Auto loans$37427%
Utilities$29026%
Cable/ Internet$11025%
Rent$1,02320%
Mobile phone$8819%
Mortgage$1,26817%
Alarm/ Security$7617%
Auto insurance$18115%
Dental insurance$2514%
Life insurance$7613%
Health insurance$9410%

Prioritizing Payments

While 20% of Americans say they’ve missed a rent payment over the past few months, what’s even more alarming is that 28% of U.S. consumers believe they will most likely skip paying rent in the future.

Bill Type% Likely to Skip in Future
Cable/  Internet29%
Utilities28%
Rent28%
Auto loans26%
Mobile phone26%
Mortgage21%
Auto insurance21%
Alarm/ Security19%
Dental insurance16%
Life insurance17%
Health insurance15%

Another clear trend is that many Americans are prioritizing insurance payments, particularly health insurance. This is good news during a global pandemic—only 10% have missed paying this bill type, although 15% expect to skip it in the coming months.

According to the report, some U.S. consumers seem to prioritize the bill types which come with strings attached, from late-payment penalties to accrued interest.

While missing a single payment might seem harmless, a pattern of missed payments over time have the potential to negatively impact your credit score.

Enough Savings To Stay Afloat?

Finally, Americans are wary about how much they have stashed away in the bank to weather the tumultuous months ahead.

While unemployment figures are recovering from historic troughs, the fear of losing one’s job remains prevalent. How many months’ worth of savings do U.S. consumers think they have if this were to happen?

# Months % Responses
7+ months 💰💰💰💰💰💰💰23%
4-6 months 💰💰💰💰💰💰15%
1-3 months 💰💰💰27%
<1 month 💰35%

No one knows how long the COVID-19 chaos will last. In order to adapt to this economic uncertainty, consumer priorities are shifting along with their tightened budgets.

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Healthcare

Measuring the Emotional Impact of COVID-19 on the U.S. Population

This graphic visualizes the impact of COVID-19 on emotional distress levels by different demographic subgroups such as race, education, or sex.

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The Emotional Impact of COVID-19 on the U.S. Population

The COVID-19 pandemic has ripped through almost every country on the planet, causing devastating decay to the mental health of millions of people.

While most of us are experiencing higher levels of emotional distress than normal, the severity of stress may change based on factors such as age, race, education level, or even where you live.

This graphic uses data from the National Pandemic Emotional Impact Report to illustrate how each demographic subgroup in the U.S. is feeling.

The Methodology

The emotional upheaval of such a unique event impacts people in different ways, and is difficult to measure given the many direct and indirect factors associated with it.

For the report referenced in the graphic, researchers created a detailed methodology to measure the impact of COVID-19 across a sample of 1,500 adults. Surveys were conducted in May 2020, when the majority of people were under strict lockdown orders. Unemployment levels mirrored those seen only during the Great Depression, and of course, the death rate was rising quicker than anyone could have anticipated.

A Pandemic Distress Index Score (PDIS) was calculated based on participant’s responses, which were then divided into low (bottom 25%), moderate, and high (top 25%) quartiles of pandemic distress.

Emotional Distress Levels, by Demographic Group

Findings uncovered that almost 40% of participants have lost their jobs, or experienced a reduction in income due to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, the reverberations of such stressors vary by demographic subgroup.

Age

According to the report, pandemic-related emotional distress decreases by age group. People in the 18-34 year bracket reported the most pandemic-related distress overall—with respondents citing high stress at nearly double the rate of people over 50 years old. Meanwhile, respondents in the 65+ age group had reported the lowest distress scores of all.

Race

Of all ethnicities in the survey, Hispanics/Latinos and Blacks had the highest average Pandemic Distress Index Scores, and Whites had the lowest average scores.

It is also worth noting that the research concluded five days after the death of George Floyd, so the majority of responses may not include the influence of this event, and the subsequent movement against systematic racism.

Other Categories

In other subgroups, there were slight differences worth mentioning. For example, from a communities perspective, people who live in rural areas were less likely to experience high pandemic distress compared to people living in towns or cities.

When it comes to the battle of the sexes, men and women experience similar levels of distress. Moreover, the level of emotional distress related to COVID-19 did not differ much between people with children under 18 and those with older children. However, women with children under 18 reported more symptoms of anxiety compared to women with no minor children.

What Does the Data Mean?

While the research presents several important insights, understanding what it means is crucial in providing people with the support they need.

For example, participants with high pandemic-related distress are 40 times more likely to have clinically significant levels of anxiety and 20 times more likely to have clinically significant symptoms of depression, compared to those on the lower end of the spectrum.

impact of COVID-19 supplemental

In fact, a report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 1 in 4 people in the 18-24 age bracket have seriously considered committing suicide at some point during the month of June 2020, which is in line with the emotional distress scores for this age group.

Building Immunity

While nobody can escape the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on mental health, it is clear that some people are more at risk than others.

Unfortunately, younger adults and people of racial and ethnic minorities have carried higher psychological burdens from the pandemic so far, and we have yet to see the long-term effects that could transpire as a result.

“Even when the pandemic is brought under control, grief, anxiety and depression will continue to affect people and communities.”

—António Guterres, United Nations

Although at times the pandemic may feel inescapable, we must continue to prioritize both our physical and mental health—so we can build immunity for what’s to come.

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