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Measuring voluntary social distancing behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Youpei Yan, Amyn A Malik, Jude Bayham, Eli P Fenichel, Chandra Couzens, Saad B Omer

Posted 06 May 2020
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.05.01.20087874

Staying home and avoiding unnecessary contact is an important part of the effort to contain COVID-19 and limit deaths. Every state in the United States enacted policies to encourage distancing, and some mandated staying home. Understanding how these policies interact with individuals' voluntary responses to the COVID-19 epidemic is critical for estimating the transmission dynamics of the pathogen and assessing the impact of policies. We use the variation in policy responses along with smart device data, which measures the amount of time Americans stayed home, to show that there was substantial voluntary avoidance behavior. We disentangle the extent to which observed shifts in behavior are induced by policy and find evidence of a non-trivial voluntary response to local reported COVID-19 cases and deaths, such that around 45 cases in a home county is associated with the same amount of time at home as a stay-at-home order. People responded to the risk of contracting COVID-19 and to policy orders, though the response to policy orders crowds out or displaces a large share of the voluntary response, suggesting that, during early stages of the U.S. outbreak, better compliance with social distancing recommendations could have been achieved with policy crafted to complement voluntary behavior.

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