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Working Paper, No. 2022-04, February 2022 Crossref
A Model of Economic Activity in San Francisco During the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

I jointly use daily data on deaths and public transportation ridership in San Francisco in 1918–19 to estimate a model in which agents choose their level of economic activity based on perceived infection risk, modeled as a function of current and lagged infections or deaths. Agents’ choices in turn affect the dynamics of the epidemic by reducing contacts in an otherwise standard SEIR model. Non-pharmaceutical interventions restrict agents’ activity either as a tax or a bound. I estimate the parameters by maximum likelihood and use the best-fitting model to compute counterfactuals. San Francisco’s intervention reduced deaths by a few percent only, and it was away from the Pareto frontier: an earlier and milder intervention would have done better. The behavioral feedback narrows the room for intervention compared to a model with unresponsive agents, and ill-timed interventions can worsen outcomes. Masks also had an effect on transmission rates.


Working papers are not edited, and all opinions and errors are the responsibility of the author(s). The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago or the Federal Reserve System.

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