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Study: Low Unemployment Rate In Mass. May Give Flu Rate A Boost

Massachusetts is enjoying a relatively low unemployment rate — it notched down just a bit to 2.8% last December, a little lower than the national average. And — it's also flu season. Recent research says changes in employment can actually affect the spread of the flu.

Study co-author Erik Nesson of Ball State University said when employment increases, the flu rate make a marked increase, too.

Erik Nesson, economics professor: We are very interested in the relationship between economic activity and health. We got interested in this question because we noticed that a lot of activities and characteristics of office spaces seem very conducive to the spread of the flu.

And so we decided to try and examine whether changes in employment would be related to changes in the prevalence of the flu.

This is just another example of the close relationship that we see between the economy and people's health in general. We see that there are many reasons why, when economic activity increases, people become healthier. But there are other reasons why when economic activity increases, that has some negative effects on people's health. And this is another example of that.

Unemployment rate in the northeast by state for December 2019 (seasonally adjusted).
Credit geofred.stlouisfed.org / Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
Unemployment rate in the northeast by state for December 2019 (seasonally adjusted).

Carrie Healy, NEPR: When you say when economic activity increases — I'm looking at Massachusetts, with a relatively low unemployment rate. Does that mean we have good economic activity, and that could lead to an increase in the spread of the flu?

Yeah, that's what our results suggest. When a state sees lower-than-expected unemployment, that often means that there is higher-than-expected economic activity going on in that state. More people are going to work. More people are likely buying things at the store.

And a lot of those activities bring people in to close contact with each other — shaking hands at the office space, using communal touch surfaces. And then we would expect that next month, we would see a higher-than-expected prevalence of the flu.

So do you see — and maybe this isn't a fair question — do you see the economy driving the flu, or the flu driving the economy, at a certain point in a season?

We were concerned about that, because it may be plausible that if more people get the flu, then that may affect people's ability to seek or retain employment, as well.

We made sure to test, in our results, that it was the changes in employment that were affecting the spread of the flu, not the other way around.

Was there anything that stood out about Massachusetts or the New England region that's notable?

I think that areas of New England that do have high levels of retail employment, or high levels of health care employment, would be likely to see a stronger relationship between changes in employment and the spread of the flu.

Of course, there are a lot of other factors that affect the spread of the flu. Each flu season is different. The strain of the virus matters quite a bit. Temperatures and precipitation, obviously, matter a lot as well.

So to the extent that New England has different aspects that relate to different employment levels, then yes, that might make New England stand out in one way or another.

It seems like the messaging around wash your hands, stay home for more than a couple days, that kind of thing, could break through this kind of pattern, couldn't it?

It could. One of the other takeaways from our study is that we think that this makes companies' evaluations of their sick time policies very important.

When a company is deciding how lenient it should be, and how generous sick time policies are, one aspect of that is if one sick employee stays home from work instead of coming into work — although that is a negative for the company's bottom line, if that employee does not infect a number of other employees, more generous sick time policies may actually be good for companies' bottom lines.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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