Evicted and infected: How the housing crisis could worsen the COVID-19 pandemic

A study led by a Penn epidemiologist offers a cautionary tale about the collision of two national crises: rising unemployment and the COVID-19 pandemic. With more Americans out of work and unable to pay rent, even a low rate of evictions would significantly accelerate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 throughout the entire country, the research team’s preliminary findings show.

Person wearing a face mask stands outside their door looking at an eviction notice in their hand.

Mass unemployment paired with a virus that is primarily transmitted within the home creates a deadly combination, according to Michael Z. Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology in the Perelman School of Medicine. That’s because when tenants are evicted, research suggests that most people tend to “double up” with other households.

“A larger household has more opportunities for the virus to get into the home, and once it’s there, it can spread more,” Levy says. “Those two things act multiplicatively and have outsized repercussions on the growth rate of the epidemic.”

Moreover, Levy notes, traditional public health measures that can slow community transmission—like social distancing—cannot easily be applied inside a crowded home.

Combining data from multiple sources, such as surveys and contact tracing studies, the researchers created a model to track the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through a hypothetical metropolitan area with a population of 1 million. They used a network to represent contacts that could lead to transmission of the virus between individuals grouped in houses and mapped out how changes in public health interventions (such as work-from-home policies and school closures) would increase or decrease interactions with contacts outside of the home, subsequently leading to more or fewer infections. The researchers then modeled evictions that resulted in “doubling up” by merging each evicted household with one randomly selected household in the network.

Across various scenarios, the research team found that evictions could lead to a considerable uptick in COVID-19 infections in U.S. cities. When eviction rates are low, around 0.25% per month, the doubling up of households would still lead to anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 excess COVID cases per million residents. When eviction rates rise to 2%, those numbers get even higher—up to 100,000 excess cases of COVID in a single city. Specifically, in Philadelphia, evictions could cause 53,000 extra infections, the team found.

This story is by Lauren Ingeno. Read more at Penn Medicine News.