In a new study from Harvard Medical School and the RAND Corporation, researchers found in counties with already high COVID-19 infection rates, birthday bashes may have fueled infection spread during the peak months of the pandemic.
They that in counties with high rates of COVID-19, households with recent birthdays were 30% more likely to have a COVID-19 diagnosis, compared with households with no birthdays.
The researchers point out that they did not count actual birthday parties in their analysis. Instead, they used birth dates of household members as a proxy for social gatherings and in-person festivities.
Nonetheless, the team said, the findings do signal that social gatherings, such as birthday parties, may have contributed to infections during the height of the pandemic.
Experts have speculated that small and informal gatherings might have played an important role in the spread of the virus, but the degree of risk associated with various kinds of social activities has been hard to measure, or even estimate.
In the study, the team tried to tease out the relationship between social gatherings and COVID-19 by studying whether infection rates increase in households in which a member recently had a birthday.
They analyzed a nationwide sample of nearly 3 million U.S. households with employer-based insurance provided by Castlight Health.
Over the first 45 weeks of 2020 the researchers found that in counties with high COVID-19 transmission, households with recent birthdays averaged 8.6 more cases per 10,000 individuals than households in the same counties without a birthday.
The magnitude of the risk varied based on the age of the person with a birthday.
In households in which a child had a birthday, the effect was even higher, with an increase in COVID-19 cases of 15.8 per 10,000 persons in the two weeks following a child’s birthday compared to cases in families without a birthday.
In households with an adult birthday, the increase was 5.8 additional cases per 10,000.
The researchers speculated that households with child birthdays might have been less likely to cancel birthday plans due to the pandemic, or that social distancing may have been followed less strictly at children’s birthday parties.
Among households in counties with low COVID-19 prevalence, the study did not find any increased rate of infection in the weeks following birthdays.
The researchers were only able to examine a single kind of event that likely leads to social gatherings, but given the magnitude of the increased risk linked to having a birthday in the household, it’s clear that informal gatherings of all kinds played a significant role in the spread of COVID-19.
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The study is published in JAMA Internal Medicine. One author of the study is Anupam Jena.
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