Tag: COVID-19



President-elect Joe Biden has signaled that fighting the COVID-19 pandemic will be an immediate priority for his administration. He recently announced a coronavirus advisory board of infectious disease researchers and former public health advisers along with an updated strategy that will include increases in testing and contact tracing, as well as transparent communication.

But Inauguration Day is still a month away. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is likely to increase to 20 million by the end of January, nearly doubling the levels around the time of his election, an Olin COVID-19 forecasting model predicts.

The model, which accurately forecasted the rate of COVID-19 growth over the summer of 2020, was developed by Olin’s  Meng LiuRaphael Thomadsen and Song Yao. Their paper—presenting the model and its forecasts—was published November 23 by Scientific Reports.

“One of the key reasons for the increased accuracy of this model over other COVID-19 forecasts is that this model accounts for the fact that people live in interconnected social networks rather than interacting mostly with random groups of strangers,” said Thomadsen, professor of marketing. “This allows the model to forecast that growth will not continue at exponential rates for long periods of time, as classic COVID-19 forecasts predict.”

The evolution of COVID-19 depends on how much we, as a country, continue to social distance or return back to normal levels of interaction. This chart shows forecasted cases in the U.S. through the end of January 2021 based on our current social distancing levels, as well as less and more social distancing.

An interactive online version of the model also allows users to observe the impact different levels of social distancing will have on the spread of COVID-19. The current social distancing reflects an approximate 60% return to normalcy, as compared with the level of social distancing before the pandemic. If we continue, as a nation, at the current level of social distancing, the model forecasts that we are likely to reach 20 million cases before the end of January 2021.

“Even small increases in social distancing can have a large effect on the number of cases we observe in the next two and a half months,” Thomadsen said. “Going back to a 50% return to normalcy, which was the average level of distancing in early August, would likely result in 5 million fewer cases by the end of January.

“We could effectively squash out the COVID growth within a few weeks if we went back to the levels of social distancing we experienced in April.”

Raphael Thomadsen

“We could effectively squash out the COVID growth within a few weeks if we went back to the levels of social distancing we experienced in April,” he added.

However, the researchers caution that this is likely a conservative estimate due to increased testing and the upcoming holidays.

“In our model, we assume that only 10% of cases are ever diagnosed, meaning that we will start to hit saturation,” said Song Yao, associate professor of marketing and study co-author. “However, more recently, testing has increased, and probably more like 25% of cases are diagnosed. In that case, total COVID cases would increase beyond 20 million in the next few months unless we, as a society, engage in more social distancing.”

“The upcoming holiday seasons will present a great deal of uncertainty to the outlook of the pandemic as people travel more at the end of the year. This will likely make our forecast an optimistic one,” said Meng Liu, assistant professor of marketing and study co-author.




Something is out to kill you. How do you react? Do you respond based on whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat?

“One would hope that when your life is on the line that partisanship drops out, right?” said Olin’s John Barrios, assistant professor of accounting.

Barrios

Wrong. It doesn’t. Not according to Barrios’ National Bureau of Economic Research working paper titled “Risk Perception Through the Lens of Politics in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

Barrios coauthored the paper with Yael Hochberg of Rice University.

As COVID-19 began its epic march across the United States, politicians and commentators were divided on the severity of the public health threat. Barrios and Hochberg examined people’s behavior whose perceptions of risk were informed by the news media and those of the partisan leaders. They found that the partisan divide was reflected in the social-distancing behavior of individuals.

Their research shows that a higher share of Trump voters in a county is associated with lower perceptions of risk during the pandemic. As the share of Trump voters rises, individuals search less for information on the virus. They also engage in less social distancing behavior, as measured by smartphone location patterns.

Why patterns reverse

The patterns persist in the face of state-level mandates to close schools and businesses or to stay at home. They reverse only when conservative politicians are exposed to the virus or when the White House releases federal social distancing guidelines.

“Perception really matters in terms of how you behave,” Barrios said. “And it’s even more important in these epidemics because of the externalities that our behavior has.”

Some might be very cautious because they perceive COVID-19 as dangerous. “Yet if my neighbor doesn’t really care, it doesn’t matter how much I stay in my apartment if he knocks on the door after he’s been walking around the whole of Chicago,” Barrios said.

Barrios set out to understand how individuals perceive the guidance from both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and those in political power. “Our idea was: To what extent would we observe differences in the behavior of these individuals? Given that the political party in power at this point is a Republican president, while the House (of Representatives) is Democratic.”

Even after controlling for economic characteristics in an area and the actual risk of contracting COVID-19, “we still observe a difference between high-Trump areas versus low-Trump areas,” Barrios said.

Over the course of the pandemic, governments have issued various directives regarding closing nonessential businesses and schools and sheltering in place. On March 16, federal guidelines for social distancing for a 15-day period were announced. Compliance with the directives varied substantially across counties with high and low shares of Trump voters. “In high Trump voter share counties, there is a significantly lower reduction in both average daily distance traveled and in visits to nonessential businesses,” Barrios said.

Those patterns shifted dramatically once the pandemic began affecting Republican politicians. Barrios’ paper notes the emergence of COVID-19 infections among participants at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference early this year. On March 9, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and the chairman of CPAC self-quarantined after exposure to someone with COVID. After that announcement, people in counties with high Trump voter shares shifted their behavior. They reduced daily distance traveled and visits to nonessential businesses.

“They’re kind of catching up,” Barrios said. “Democrat areas in the same time period are still becoming more conservative, they’re social distancing more. It’s just that Republican areas are now doing it at a higher rate because they’re catching up because they’re taking it seriously.”

Same risk, different perspectives

Barrios said  “it’s worrying” that partisanship affects compliance with public health policy. “We’re not saying that the Democrats were right or Republicans were right. We’re simply saying that it’s very noteworthy that despite being exposed to the same risk, we still see different perspectives,” he said.

“Our main point is: If you want to think about policy and compliance in this voluntary, free society that we live in, the sources of this information matter and affect how we perceive that information,” Barrios said.

“And the fact that we have either news sources or political leaders that have diametrically opposed views on subjects, for whatever reason, seems to affect the behavior of individuals in ways that have real consequences—in this case, human lives.”




The economy and coronavirus pandemic were two of the top issues for voters in the 2020 election, according to exit poll surveys. Notably, 52% of voters said controlling the pandemic was more important, even if it hurts the economy. But what if we didn’t have to choose?

In communities where masks were mandated, consumer spending increased by 5% on average, showing that a safety rule can stimulate economic growth as well, according to a new study from the Olin Business School.

Researchers found the effect was greatest among non-essential businesses, including those in the retail and entertainment industries—such as restaurants and bars—that were hit hard by the pandemic.

​Thomadsen

“The findings exceeded our expectations and show that we can have a strong economy with strong, commonsense public-health measures. Mask mandates are a win-win,” said Raphael Thomadsen, professor of marketing and study co-author.

Thomadsen, along with Olin’s Song YaoNan Zhao and Chong Bo Wang, analyzed the impact of social distancing and mask mandates on both the spread of COVID-19 and consumer spending. They used cellphone location data to track the degree of social distancing in nearly every county in the U.S. and compared that with community voting patterns, coronavirus infection rates and consumer spending rates.

The researchers found social distancing has a large impact on reducing COVID-19 spread, while the evidence on mask mandates is mixed. But while social distancing reduces consumer spending, mask mandates has the opposite effect. They also found that social distancing decreased in communities with mask mandates, magnifying the positive effect on spending.

Feeling safer to spend

Yao

“Preventive measures such as social distancing and facial masks should be considered as pro-business,” said Yao, associate professor of marketing. “When people feel safer to spend, or more importantly, when the pandemic is kept at bay, the economy is more likely to have a quick recovery. Not to mention the lives that will be saved.”

Perhaps not surprising given the political lines drawn over masks, they also observed that political affiliation had a significant impact on social distancing. Even after controlling for local characteristics such as the population density, income and other demographics, counties that voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 engaged in significantly less social distancing than counties that voted for Hillary Clinton.

“If the entire country had followed low levels of social distancing seen in Trump-supporting areas, we estimate there would have been 83,000 more American deaths from COVID to date, which represents a 36% increase over the current death count of 225,000 Americans,” Thomadsen said.

They estimate the tradeoff would have been a relatively small boost in the economy. Consumer spending dropped $605.5 billion from April to the end of July, compared with the same time last year. The country would have recovered $55.4 billion, or approximately 9%, had all counties remained as open as the most pro-Trump areas.To put it in more dramatic terms, Thomadsen said this means that opening up is only a reasonable policy if one values lost lives at roughly $670,000 each or less. This value was determined by dividing the hypothetical $55.4 billion boost to the economy by the 83,000 lives lost in this scenario.

“The calls to open up the economy come with huge costs of COVID spread and only modest benefits of increased economic activity,” Thomadsen said. “Opening the economy before getting the virus under control only makes sense if you put a very low value on life.”




New research shows consumers strongly prefer “natural,” not synthetic, products to prevent ailments.

Which presents a dilemma. Medical researchers are racing to create a vaccine for COVID-19. When they do, how receptive will consumers be?

Vaccines are far from “natural.”

“Vaccines are technically a treatment to prevent an ailment,” said Sydney Scott, Olin assistant professor of marketing. “Moreover, vaccines are unnatural insofar as humans create and alter them. Some people refuse vaccines as a preventative measure, preferring not to ‘interfere with nature.’”

Sydney Scott

As the world anxiously awaits a COVID-19 vaccine, however, perhaps consumers will view it as a curative for a societal problem, Scott said.

“Our research suggests that if consumers view a vaccine more like a curative to the epidemic, rather than as a preventative for the self, they will be more receptive toward it.”

Scott, an expert in consumer behavior and decision-making, is the lead author of “Consumers Prefer ‘Natural’ More for Preventatives Than for Curatives,” forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Consumers’ beliefs

Consumers believe that natural products are safer and less potent than synthetic alternatives, the research found. And they care more about safety and less about potency when they’re trying to prevent problems.

“This research sheds light on when the marketing of ‘natural’ is most appealing to consumers,” Scott said.

Consumers often prefer natural versions of foods, medicines, personal care products and home products, according to the paper. “Natural” isn’t a legally defined and regulated term, but consumers’ definition is that a product has no additives and that humans haven’t tampered with it.

“This preference for natural is an increasingly important driver of consumers’ decisions,” Scott said.

Insulin, antibiotics, cortisone creams

In some cases, however, consumers abandon their preference for natural.

For example, people widely accept insulin, antibiotics, cortisone creams and synthetic stain removers, although they are evidently unnatural, according to the paper. “Thus, anecdotally, the preference for natural products looms larger in some situations than in others.”

The researchers focused on the relation between consumers’ judgments about naturalness and their beliefs about two important attributes—safety and potency. They examined when consumers prefer natural most strongly and why the variance in preference for natural occurs.

“Consumers widely desire natural products, but not always to the same degree,” Scott said. “We demonstrate that the preference for natural is particularly strong when consumers are preventing problems or illnesses compared to when they are curing the same problems or illnesses.”

Scott and coauthors Paul Rozin and Deborah Small, both of the University of Pennsylvania, present seven studies. One showed that consumers more strongly prefer the exact same natural product when preventing an ailment than when curing it. Another showed consumers search for and chose natural products to prevent versus treat cold symptoms.

Another, which examined consumers’ reports about their health choices over a year, found consumers prioritize naturalness in their preventative treatments more than in their curative treatments. And another showed that when consumers believed natural products were riskier and more potent than synthetic products, they preferred natural products for curing.

COVID-19

The research was developed with a focus on individuals making decisions for themselves among multiple treatment options (some natural, some synthetic). But the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic raises important questions about the implications—and future directions—of their research.

For instance, the authors ask, do pandemics induce a macro-level version of a curative mindset?

“In other words, society may conclude that there already exists a problem (a widespread ailment) that needs to be cured, thereby placing more importance on potency relative to safety,” they write.

Relatedly, consumer acceptance of a prevention for pandemics and epidemics might be affected by the contagiousness of a disease, severity of a disease, scarcity of treatment options, and novelty of and lack of knowledge about the threat. And each might have downstream consequences on safety/potency tradeoffs consumers are willing to make.

Contributions

The paper makes several contributions. “Our primary contribution is to provide an organizing principle for explaining when consumers prefer natural products,” the authors write. The prevent/cure distinction explains variation in the preference for natural

  • across distinct product categories such as food and medicine,
  • within product categories such as different types of medicine,
  • and for the same product depending on whether consumers used it to prevent or to cure ailments.

“In doing so, our research not only generates new predictions, but also helps unify past descriptive findings under one theoretical framework.”

From an applied perspective, “the identified organizing principle can help marketers predict when and where the preference for natural is likely to loom large.”

Marketers and managers often must make decisions about when to invest in a natural brand or product line.

“Our research suggests that, all else equal, natural products are most popular when they are used for preventative purposes.”




This was written by the current Olin/United Way Board Fellows Program students who agreed to share their feedback anonymously from a recent survey. It was compiled by Amy VanEssendelft, CEL Senior Program Manager.

The Center for Experiential Learning provides an opportunity for MBA, PMBA and EMBA students to serve for a full year as a voting member of a local United Way member organization’s board through the Olin/United Way Board Fellows Program.  Al Kent serves as the program director for this opportunity. Al has been a member of over a dozen nonprofit boards throughout his life.

Every year, he outlines goals (highlighted below) for the students who participate in this program.  Under each goal are comments from current students who are participating in the program. These comments demonstrate how each goal is in the process of being achieved, especially with, and in spite of, the current COVID-19 challenges.

Work to define and solve an ambiguous problem

“I really appreciate the support and autonomy I’ve been given for my project.  I have built an understanding of the board dynamic and have gained support from key stakeholders.”  

“As I go forward, I have continued to learn to be agile and adaptive and look at creative ways to develop the advocacy campaign within (my agency) despite the limitations the current environment has placed on us.”  

“The president of my board said something in my first meeting which I remember vividly: If an organization succeeds, everyone is responsible for that success.  However, if an organization fails, it is the board’s fault.” 

Deepen understanding of leadership

“This has given me a different perspective on the leadership role boards play, and is particularly poignant right now during this crisis as our board is faced with incredibly difficult decisions.”  

“Watching how the executive director navigates the board and rallies them to action has been an incredible learning opportunity for me.”

 “In the most recent board meeting, I was able to witness in real time how an organization’s leadership communicates about and responds to a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

“I’ve observed how people bring their diverse backgrounds to the table and how interactions proceed when experienced leaders have a common goal.”

Understand how nonprofits work and learn board governance

“They are mission-driven and conscious about their budget/strategy/customer services just like any other entity.”

“I’m very surprised that a nonprofit could do such an amazing job and run like a corporation.”

 “Now, I see the crucial role they play in setting budgets, hiring directors, and truly deciding the direction of their organization.”  

 “Participating in all the board committee meetings helps me understand how everything comes together.”

Develop a professional network and build passion

“I have had the opportunity to interact with very high-impact individuals who are passionate about their mission and vision.” 

“It is clear that the board members are not just there because they are high dollar donors, but instead because they are incredibly engaged and passionate about the mission.” 

 “Their positivity is infectious and this motivates me to go forward.”