Who’s Safe? Living Alone May Be Better Than Youth or Wealth

People living alone may have a lower risk of infection.

Posted Apr 21, 2020

When I make a claim about being single or living alone, unless I am talking about my own personal experiences, I want it to be backed up by data. But I strayed from that principle, starting with the very first time someone asked me about people who are living alone during the coronavirus outbreak. I said that people who live alone are safer than people living with others.

It just seemed logical, as if it almost had to be true. If you live alone, you are the only person putting yourself at risk. You can stay inside. You can make sure no one enters your place. You can be very careful if you do venture out.

But if you live with someone else, that person is putting you at risk every time they leave your place and come back home. Anyone they came near could have infected them, and they could in turn infect you. Now multiply that by however many people you have living with you.

In just the past week or so, evidence consistent with my presumption has been published. It comes from multiple sources, and it is intriguing.

The Size of Your Household May Matter More Than Age, Race, or Income

The first line of evidence comes from New York City. There, the city’s Department of Health has been making data available on the number of coronavirus cases in every zip code in Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island. Jake Dobkin and Zach Gottehrer-Cohen, reporters at Gothamist, analyzed those data to see which factors were most strongly associated with more infections.

You’ve probably heard by now that older people are at greater risk. The reporters looked into that, charting the number of COVID-19 cases by the median age of the people in each of the neighborhoods. The results were in the expected direction—more cases in older neighborhoods—but they were not very strong.

Also fairly well known is that people of color, for reasons that are not always immediately apparent, are more at risk. The reporters found evidence for that, too. Neighborhoods with higher proportions of Blacks or Hispanics had moderately higher rates of COVID-19.

Dobkin and Gottehrer-Cohen also looked at wealth. Money can buy lots of things; is protection from COVID-19 one of them? With the caveat that all of these findings are correlational, so we cannot make claims about causality, the answer may be yes. The greater the median income of a neighborhood, the fewer COVID-19 cases there were in that neighborhood. In fact, income mattered much more than the other demographic variables. (Take a look at the graphs if you want to see for yourself.)

A few days after publishing those results, Dobkin teamed up with David Cruz and Elizabeth Kim to examine one more factor—the average size of the households in each neighborhood. Those findings were even more striking. They were stronger than any of the others. The smaller the households, the fewer cases there were of COVID-19. Take a look at that graph and notice just how low the numbers are for neighborhoods where the average household size gets closest to one, and how many more cases there are for neighborhoods with bigger households.

Exposure to Family May Now Be Associated With More Risk Than Travel or Exposure to Social Contacts or Work or School Contacts

The second line of evidence comes from a study in Iceland by D. F. Gudbjartsson and 40 (!) co-authors, published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Using contact-tracing data, they compared the risks of SARS-COV-2 infection from exposure to family, social contacts, work and school contacts, domestic tourism, and international travel. In the first few days of March, most infections could be traced to international travel and work, but over time, family gained ground. By the end of the month, many more infections, and a much greater proportion of infections, came from contact with family than from any other known source. (See section C on p. 12.)

Neither study is perfect. The first one, for example, is based on an analysis of neighborhoods, not individuals, and doesn’t control for other factors. And in the second, people could have more infections from family because they are now more likely to see family members than people from work or school. Still, both are suggestive in similar ways.

But Aren't the People Living Alone Lonelier?

You may be thinking, OK, people living alone are safer these days, but aren't they also miserable and lonely? Undoubtedly some are, and they seem to be getting the most attention in the media. But single people and people who live alone are also among those who are thriving despite all the challenges of living in a time of lockdown during a global pandemic. Although there is no systematic research yet, my prediction is that those who are not just single, but single at heart, are especially likely to be doing well. They cherish their solitude.

Even before the coronavirus struck, living alone had a bad reputation. It routinely got conflated with being isolated and lonely. Better reasoning, and better research, dismantles that sloppy thinking. Consider, for example, a study I described here previously that was based on more than 16,000 people ranging in age from 18 to 103. It showed that when you compare people living alone to people of similar means living with others, the people who live alone are actually less lonely.

If you are thinking of asking your single friends how they are faring, please do so. But if you were also planning to serve your good wishes with a side of pity, check first to see if it is warranted.