UC study predicts COVID-19 vaccine optimism will lead to stricter social distancing

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Research for a recently published UC study began in spring 2020 amid the initial implementation of shelter-in-place guidelines. The study evaluated the relationship between social distancing policy and COVID-19 vaccine arrival.

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A study from the UC’s Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics predicted that the increased optimism about the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine in the United States will lead to stricter levels of social distancing.

The research for the study began in spring 2020 when shelter-in-place guidances were first put in place, according to study co-author Terrence Iverson. Originally, the authors were focusing on social distancing in a pandemic, but as research continued, the topic was narrowed down to discussing the relationship between social distancing policy and vaccine arrival.

“Some MIT economist came out with a very similar paper before we finished our paper, so we were sort of halfway through our research project and started getting into some of these questions about vaccine arrival,” Iverson said.

According to the research, in late 2020 and early 2021, there was an optimal policy of stronger social distancing among the U.S. population when it was optimistic a vaccine would arrive earlier.

The authors used a specific model in epidemiology research known as the Susceptible-Infected-Recovered model, which helped them evaluate the population as a responsive network. The model described how the individuals within that network progress from being susceptible or exposed to the virus, to becoming infected and, finally, to recovering — possibly with immunity — or dying.

“Our results suggest that as we become more optimistic about near-term vaccine ‘arrival,’ we should strengthen social distancing policy,” said Larry Karp, campus professor and study co-author, in an email.

The researchers also investigated the proposals to reach herd immunity. They examined the Great Barrington Declaration, which attracted the Trump administration in late 2020.

One of the two policies in the declaration is that more vulnerable groups would follow stricter social distancing measures, while the second was that lower-risk sectors of the population would not be subject to any form of social distancing.

“Early in the pandemic, when there was tremendous uncertainty and significant pessimism about the vaccine’s arrival time, the proposal was plausible,” the study reads. “But, if vaccine ‘arrival’ is imminent—as in late 2020 and early 2021—then the policy is catastrophic.”

However, Julia Schaletzky, executive director of Henry Wheeler Center for Emerging and Neglected Diseases, said the study’s findings require more variables to be in place in order to come to an informed conclusion.

“For me, (the) most critical (variable) is the arrival of other variants that could mean re-infection and also eventually infect vaccinated people,” Schaletzky said in an email.

The study also acknowledged that there are many other factors that play into the link between following social distancing policies and the arrival of the vaccine.

While the study authors are not currently doing further research on this topic, Karp said their findings will be useful, as there is now more knowledge regarding how to model policy questions and obtain legitimate results.

“The identification and explanation of the mechanism that relates the level of optimal social distancing and the optimism about early vaccine ‘arrival’ is (somewhat) new in the economics literature, and might spur further research into the topic,” Karp said in the email.

Contact Mia Scher at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @miascher_dc.