You’ve seen the “Heroes Work Here” signs thanking health-care providers for risking their lives to do their jobs during the pandemic. You’ve heard about deadly hot spots for workplace exposure to the coronavirus, including meatpacking, food processing, and public transit.
But estimates of the extra risk are iffy. There is no way to know for sure how many COVID-19 infections in the U.S. are directly or indirectly due to jobs, and factors such as testing and masking affect the rates.
Now, researchers at Independence Blue Cross, a major commercial health insurer, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business have created “a uniquely detailed dataset” to sharpen the picture. They analyzed the impact of Pennsylvania’s increasingly stringent lockdown last year on infection rates for more than 415,000 Blue Cross policyholders and 387,000 people living with them in the state’s Southeast region.
Distinguishing essential and nonessential workers ― and their household members — required cross-referencing medical insurance claims, zip code data, demographic information, and job industry codes.
Between mid-February and early June, when Gov. Tom Wolf lifted the stay-at-home order, about 2% of essential workers insured by Blue Cross tested positive for COVID-19, compared to 1% of nonessential workers, the researchers found. Using statistical modeling methods, that translated to a 55% higher risk of COVID-19 infection for workers deemed essential.
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The risk of household spread was also greater for essential workers. Their family members were 17% more likely to test positive, and their roommates were 38% more likely, compared to those living with nonessential workers.
Although health-care providers were the main driver of the overall 55% increased risk, as a separate group their risk was 41% higher, perhaps because of greater use of precautions such as masks. Gov. Wolf mandated mask-wearing in all stores and businesses in April, and expanded the order to all public places in July.
The new study did not attempt to tell how many infected workers developed severe disease or died. But the authors acknowledged that policymakers faced a horrible dilemma. Shutting down much of the economy reduced the public health crisis, but the financial impact was devastating.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented level of unemployment in the United States rivaling only the Great Depression,” they wrote.
Study co-author Aaron Smith-McLallen, director of health informatics for IBC, said the findings could help officials calculate the economic and health tradeoffs of shutdowns, worker classifications, and mitigation measures such as mask mandates.
“It does give us a way to quantify how effective these policies are,” Smith-McLallen said.