Impact of social distancing on early SARS-CoV-2 transmission in the United States

Jessica N. Sanchez, Gabriel A. Reyes, Beatriz Martínez-López, Christine K Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is a viral pathogen that quickly became a global pandemic in the winter of 2020–2021. In response, governments issued social distancing orders to minimize transmission by reducing community contacts. We tested the efficacy of this social distancing at the state level during the first 2 months of the pandemic in the United States. We utilized data on daily SARS-CoV-2 case numbers and human community mobility (anonymized, aggregated cell phone location data stratified into six categories used as an index of social distancing), the date of government-issued social distancing orders, demographics, urbanization and public transportation. We implemented cross-correlation to identify lag times between declines in mobility and SARS-CoV-2 cases. Incorporating state-specific lag times, we tested for associations between case counts and mobility metrics using Bayesian multilevel models. Decreased mobility around grocery stores/pharmacies, retail/recreation locations, transit stations and workplaces was correlated with decreases in SARS-CoV-2 cases with significant lag times of ≥21 days. Social distancing orders were associated with fewer cumulative SARS-CoV-2 cases when they were put in place earlier. Community mobility had already started declining prior to most social distancing orders, especially the more restrictive orders implemented later in the pandemic. Social distancing is an important tool that has been implemented throughout the pandemic to decrease SARS-CoV-2 transmission, although with significant social and economic impacts. Our results suggest that declines in cases were observed several weeks subsequent to implementation of social distancing measures, and that implementing social distancing earlier could potentially minimize the duration of time these policies need to be in effect. Our findings can inform ongoing management of this pandemic and other emerging infectious disease outbreaks by identifying areas where reductions in mobility are associated with reduced disease transmission, and the expected time frame between behavioural changes and measurable population outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalZoonoses and Public Health
StateAccepted/In press - 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • veterinary(all)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Infectious Diseases


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