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If there is one thing the coronavirus pandemic has taught people, it is that how much living space you have matters when you or someone you love falls ill with COVID-19.
But a new survey shows that the very group most vulnerable to infection may have precious little room in which to safely weather the illness: 1 in 5 older Americans can't isolate in their home when infected with the coronavirus.
The researchers also found that older Blacks and Hispanics, who tend to have poorer health and lower incomes, are even less likely to have space at home to remain isolated.
Nearly a third of Hispanic respondents (31%) said they didn't have isolation space, compared with 25% of Black respondents and 14% of white respondents, according to a University of Michigan online poll of more than 2,000 adults, aged 50 to 80.
People with household incomes under $30,000 were more than twice as likely as those with incomes over $100,000 to lack isolation space.
People who live in apartments were over two times more likely than those who live in single-family detached homes to have no place to isolate.
Isolating people who are infected with the coronavirus is critical to preventing others in the same living space from getting sick, the researchers noted.
This is especially important in homes with people who are at higher risk, such as those older than 50; with underlying conditions such as obesity, diabetes and lung disease, and with weakened immune systems.
"Research has proven that COVID-19 can spread easily within homes, so that's why it's concerning that 18% of people over 50 don't have a way to do so, and that this rose to 27% among those who say they're in fair or poor health, which may indicate a higher risk of severe COVID-19," said poll director Dr. Preeti Malani, a Michigan Medicine physician specializing in geriatrics and infectious diseases.
"The disparities we saw in the poll suggest differences in living arrangements may be playing a larger role in the pandemic than we thought, and point to a need for health providers and public health officials to advise the public on ways to stay safe depending on their individual living situation," Malani said in a university news release.
The poll, conducted last June and released Wednesday, also found inequalities in another important aspect of staying safe and healthy during the pandemic: the ability to get outside for fresh air and exercise, and to meet safely with friends, neighbors and relatives.
Older adults who had more access to outdoor spaces around their home and those who could walk to green spaces like parks, gardens or woods were more likely to be able to do these things.
Still, income, race/ethnicity and health status also affected a respondent's chances of getting outside for activity and safe socializing.
SOURCE: University of Michigan, news release, Feb. 3, 2021
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