Could Self-Isolation Make You More Vulnerable to COVID-19?

Could Self-Isolation Make You More Vulnerable to COVID-19?

Research on psychosocial factors and susceptibility to upper respiratory tract infections suggests those unable to stay socially integrated may be at higher risk

Rachel Muenz

While necessary to help slow the spread of COVID-19, research so far has shown that lockdowns have had negative effects on our health as well. With many people unable to work and facing stress and anxiety due to the uncertainty of the situation, as well as being isolated from family and friends and worried over potential exposure and infection, studies have shown that the pandemic has impacted our quality of sleep and mental health. Other research published this week has shown a rise in so-called broken heart syndrome, a condition in which emotional or physical distress leads to problems with the heart muscle.

But could such stress brought on by measures to control the pandemic make people more susceptible to contracting COVID-19?

That’s the tentative suggestion of a paper published July 8 in Perspectives on Psychological Science. Authored by Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University, whose lab has focused on exploring the psychosocial factors that lead to people becoming ill with upper respiratory tract infections, the paper suggests that there is a strong possibility that “chronic psychological stress” such as that brought on by the current pandemic could increase the chance of people becoming ill with COVID-19.

In the lab’s research on other respiratory illnesses after virus exposure, which included a series of five studies, factors Cohen’s team has found to decrease the risk of people becoming sick included “social integration, social support, physical activity, adequate and efficient sleep, and moderate alcohol intake.”

With the social isolation brought on by the pandemic, decreased opportunities for physical exercise, poor sleep quality, and increased alcohol intake for some, it seems quite plausible that those unable to stay connected to family or friends may be more likely to become sick with COVID-19.

Though cautious in presenting their case, Cohen and his team write that “this argument is based on evidence that the associations we report are replicable across multiple respiratory viruses and that the pathways found to link psychosocial factors to colds and influenza may play similar roles in COVID-19.”

Cohen stresses that his team’s findings highlight just how critical it is that people find whatever safe means they can to stay connected with family and friends and reach out to others who may be especially lonely during this time.

"If you have a diverse social network (social integration), you tend to take better care of yourself (no smoking, moderate drinking, more sleep, and exercise)," said Cohen in a press release regarding the study. "Also, if people perceive that those in their social network will help them during a period of stress or adversity (social support), then it attenuates the effect of the stressor and is less impactful on their health." 

Lockdowns key to preventing virus spread and deaths

It should also be noted that there is little research so far on how or if the stress of lockdowns related to COVID-19 could make people more susceptible to developing the illness. And studies on the effectiveness of lockdowns so far have shown just how important such measures are in halting the progress of the virus and preventing deaths.

A study from an international team of researchers published in March, for example, indicates that lockdowns in China during the first 50 days of that country’s outbreak likely prevented more than 700,000 infections, while a paper published in PNAS that same month shows that such measures in Italy prevented 200,000 hospitalizations in the early days of the outbreak there. A recent study of social distancing measures in the US found that “there would have been 10 times greater spread of COVID-19 by April 27 without shelter-in-place orders (10 million cases) and more than 35 times greater spread without any of the four measures (35 million cases).” The four measures examined in the study included shelter-in-place orders, closures of restaurants and other venues, school closures, and bans on large social gatherings.

With several US states currently facing spikes in cases due to lifting lockdowns too early, Cohen’s paper should certainly not be used as a reason to ignore lockdowns or social distancing measures as the pandemic continues. However, it does show us how important it is to stay connected and help one another from a distance.