Opinion | The Covid ‘Birthday Effect’ Crossed Political Boundaries

By Anupam B. Jena

Dr. Jena is an associate professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School.

A defining feature of the American experience of the pandemic has been the high degree of political polarization. There’s also a narrative, supported by studies of varying methodology and rigor, that Republicans and Democrats disagree about the risks of Covid-19 and the need for mask mandates, lockdowns and vaccinations.

While the politicization of the pandemic is undeniable, the focus on it has obscured a simple truth: Everyone has made sacrifices, no one has been spared, and the shared experience of the last year and a half has been sorely underappreciated relative to the differences.

The data also suggests that while there are some large disparities that fall along political lines — in vaccinations, self-reported mask use and closures of businesses and schools — people’s actual behavior may not have been as polarized. What people were willing to take risks for during the pandemic have been quite similar.

In a recent study on the link between birthdays and Covid-19 cases, my colleagues and I used health insurance data from nearly three million U.S. households to compare rates of Covid-19 infection in households with and without a birthday in the previous two weeks.

We found that in counties where Covid-19 was prevalent, infections in households increased by nearly 30 percent in the two weeks following a household birthday, compared to households that did not have a birthday. This “birthday effect” was even larger in households with a child’s birthday.

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