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Investigating the effects of absolute humidity and human encounters on transmission of COVID-19 in the United States

By Gary Lin, Alisa Hamilton, Oliver Gatalo, Fardad Haghpanah, Takeru Igusa, Eili Klein, For the CDC MInD-Healthcare Network

Posted 04 Nov 2020
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2020.10.30.20223446

BackgroundMounting evidence suggests that the primary mode of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is aerosolized transmission from close contact with infected individuals. Even though transmission is a direct result of human encounters, environmental conditions, such as lower humidity, may enhance aerosolized transmission risks similar to other respiratory viruses such as influenza. MethodsWe utilized dynamic time warping to cluster all 3,137 counties in the United States based on temporal data on absolute humidity from March 10 to September 29, 2020. We then used a multivariate generalized additive model (GAM) combining data on human mobility derived from mobile phone data with humidity data to identify the potential effect of absolute humidity and mobility on new daily cases of COVID-19 while considering the temporal differences between seasons. ResultsThe clustering analysis found ten groups of counties with similar humidity levels. We found a significant negative effect between increasing humidity and new cases of COVID-19 in most regions, particularly in the period from March to July. The effect was greater in regions with generally lower humidity in the Western, Midwest, and Northeast regions of the US. In the two regions with the largest effect, a 1 g/m3 increase of absolute humidity resulted in a 0.21 and 0.15 decrease in cases. The effect of mobility on cases was positive and significant across all regions in the July-Sept time period, though the relationship in some regions was more mixed in the March to June period. ConclusionsWe found that increasing humidity played an important role in falling cases in the spring, while increasing mobility in the summer contributed more significantly to increases in the summer. Our findings suggest that, similar to other respiratory viruses, the decreasing humidity in the winter is likely to lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases. Furthermore, the fact that mobility data were positively correlated suggests that efforts to counteract the rise in cases due to falling humidity can be effective in limiting the burden of the pandemic.

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