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Study Finds that Stay-at-Home Orders Strengthened and Accelerated COVID-19 Response that was Already Happening

April 12, 2021
by Rosalind D'Eugenio

Study Finds that Stay-at-Home Orders Strengthened and Accelerated COVID-19 Response that was Already Happening

The debate about whether policy or personal responsibility caused the behavioral change that mitigates and contains the spread of COVID-19 is a false debate — it was mixed and varied across the country — according to a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers from the Yale School of the Environment, Yale Institute for Global Health, and Colorado State University used location data from smart devices to measure changes in time spent at home in response to COVID-19 cases and death and following various public health interventions. They found that people responded to the health threat with behavior changes that were partly voluntary, in response to local COVID-19 conditions, and partly caused by policy shifts, such as, school closures and stay-at-home orders. The researchers say their findings show that voluntary behavior and government-mandated stay-at-home orders both contributed to pandemic control, but at times polices were redundant with what residents would have done anyway.

“Disentangling voluntary from policy-induced behavioral changes is critical for governments grappling with relaxing restrictions,” explains Saad B. Omer, author and director of the Yale Institute for Global Health. “Each state in the U.S. has policies to encourage distancing and most mandated staying home. Understanding how these policies interact with individuals’ own responses to the COVID-19 epidemic is critical to understand the role non-pharmaceutical interventions play in assessing public health policy impact.”

The researchers separated increased time spent at home that was a voluntary response from increases in response to stay-at-home orders. For 50% of counties, stay-at-home orders increased time at home as if the county had experienced 29 or fewer additional COVID-19 cases. The researchers say that the knowledge that people change behavior as a self-preservation response highlights the critical role of clear, accurate, and easily accessible testing and communication.

“Our research shows that stay-at-home orders are one piece, but not the whole pie — it is not an either or. For 50% of counties stay-at-home might not have been too important, but 96 counties would have needed over 10,000 cases to get the same effect. Yet, most counties were closing schools and issuing stay-at-home orders with fewer than 10 cases,” said author Eli Fenichel, Knobloch Family Professor of Natural Resource Economics at the Yale School of the Environment. “Our research adds perspective; one challenge is that different responses might be reasonable in different places, but in a pandemic, what happens in one place doesn’t stay there, so differentiated local responses still require coordination.”

“This study highlights the benefits of different disciplines across research groups coming together to find informative data that can help craft public policy and positively influence public health behavior,” Omer adds.

Link to the study here.

Study authors are Amyn A. Malik, Yale Institute for Global Health; Youpei Yan, Yale School of the Environment; Jude Bayham, Colorado State University; Chandra Couzens, Yale School of Public Health.

Paige Stein: 603-276-8721

Submitted by Alyssa Cruz on April 12, 2021