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Ending Eviction Bans May Exacerbate COVID-19 Health Disparities

COVID infection risk rises even more for those with chronic illness and in low-income areas, threatening to deepen COVID-19 health disparities.

People living in states lifting eviction moratoria face an increased risk for COVID0-19 12 weeks after the ban’s end, a trend researchers said could worsen COVID-19 health disparities.

The data, published in JAMA Network Open and collected by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), suggested that housing security has a serious impact on health equity and should be a consideration in public health policy moving forward.

More particularly, the researchers called on policymakers to reconsider lifting eviction bans, saying that it could worsen the pandemic.

“The public health rationale for eviction moratoria appears strong,” Mariana Arcaya, an MIT associate professor of urban planning and public health and the associate head of MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), said in a public statement.

This comes as the US debates the longevity of eviction moratoria, with courts recently ruling that the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention did not have authority to extend a nationwide eviction moratorium. Now, states and cities are left to enforce, or lift, moratoria themselves.

Eviction bans protect individuals from being removed from their housing, in this instance because of the economic crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond the ethical considerations for such protections, public health experts have asserted that eviction bans could help quell virus spread because they give people a place to quarantine in place.

Homeless shelters and other communal living dwellings have proven hotbeds for the disease, so keeping people in their own private residencies proved fruitful.

But when those eviction bans go away, the virus can spread, the data showed.

The researchers sifted through deidentified commercial and Medicare Advantage claims data to better understand how the virus spread and infected people after individual states lifted their eviction bans. In total, 26 state governments that at one point installed eviction moratoria lifted the bans while 18 did not, creating what the researchers called natural control and intervention groups.

By looking at the claims data in all of those states, the team was able to determine that maintaining eviction bans worked to control the virus. After controlling for external factors like mask policies, the researchers observed COVID-19 infection risk was 1.39 times greater five weeks after the lifting of an eviction ban, and 1.83 times greater after 12 weeks.

“Not having access to a stable way of sheltering yourself from the pandemic can be very impactful for how the pandemic spreads, not just for you but for your community,” Sebastian Sandoval-Olascoaga, a doctoral student at MIT and co-author of the study, stated publicly. “There are spillover effects, and there is a transmission process created by evictions within a community.”

That got worse for people with chronic illnesses, the team said. When looking just at populations with comorbidities living in a state with a lifted eviction ban, the risk for COVID-19 infection increased by 2.37 times within 12 weeks.

Risk also grew when looking at low-income areas. For those in low-income areas in states that lifted eviction moratoria, the risk of contracting COVID-19 rose by a factor of 2.14; for those in areas with high rent burden, the risk rose by a factor of 2.31.

In other words, ending eviction bans increased the risk for COVID-19 spread and infection, and it was worse among low-income people and those with chronic illness. That poses a threat to health equity, the researchers said.

These results compound when considering the context of the Delta variant and the nation’s current debate about eviction bans.

“These results occurred when the Delta variant was not a thing,” Sandoval-Olascoaga said, noting the data collection happened in 2020. “We were able to find an impact with a Covid strain that was not as transmissible as this one.”

But with the spread of the Delta variant, Sandoval-Olascoaga suggested states consider extending eviction moratoria.

“As new variants spread, our study suggests that this policy, which protects low-income communities and people with co-morbidities, can also create health equity and provide protection for groups with more advantages,” he urged.

In fact, eviction bans should serve as a leading COVID-19 mitigation strategy the same way masks and vaccines are, said Arcaya.

“The pandemic is not over, and while we hear a lot about what individuals can do to protect themselves — with masking and vaccination being critical — stopping evictions and otherwise helping people stay in stable housing are part of how cities, states, and the federal government can protect all of us,” Arcaya concluded.

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