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Research Questions

  1. How might behavior change during a hurricane because of the presence of COVID-19?
  2. How would these behavioral changes increase the risk of death because of the hurricane and the risk of the spread of COVID-19?
  3. Are there policy interventions that can be implemented in advance of a hurricane to prepare?
  4. How should response activities related to a hurricane change because of COVID-19?

As of August 24, 2020, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic had resulted in the deaths of approximately 2,500 Virginians. The 2020 hurricane season began June 1 and is considered to be extremely active. The threat of the pandemic increases the complexity of risk management decisions during the hurricane season. In this report, the authors study the implications that a hurricane during the COVID-19 pandemic would have for the Commonwealth of Virginia. This analysis should help inform advance planning for the hurricane season in general and could be used in response to a specific storm with an estimated track through Virginia. The authors focus on the combined impacts of COVID-19 and a hurricane on morbidity and mortality; they do not examine other effects, such as effects on infrastructure, social networks, and the economy.

Key Findings

For areas not anticipating heavy damage, sheltering in place is generally safer than evacuation during the COVID-19 pandemic

  • Because most of Virginia is generally not in the path of the most-dangerous hurricane conditions, the spread of COVID-19 through evacuation is likely to be deadlier than sheltering in place.
  • In areas likely to have heavy damage, residents should evacuate earlier than in a normal hurricane season to reduce the risk from heavy rain and other transportation hazards.
  • The projected number of deaths from increased sheltering in place is orders of magnitude lower than that expected from evacuation (caused by traffic accidents and COVID-19 spread) and COVID-19 spread in communal shelters.

The relative safety of communal shelters versus self-evacuations depends on COVID-19 spread levels

  • Smaller shelters increase the attractiveness of communal sheltering relative to evacuating in terms of avoiding COVID-19.
  • If community COVID-19 case levels are high, individuals in the area are more likely to spread the disease to evacuation destinations and in communal shelters.
  • Alternatively, if community COVID-19 case levels are low, the risk of individuals spreading the disease by evacuation or in communal shelters is low.


  • Individuals need information from trusted sources to know how to safely react to a hurricane based on their personal risk. In particular, clear and consistent risk communication will be vital to inform the population about the safest options for their family.
  • This communication must be population-specific, because different groups will have access to and prefer different communication modes.
  • Given the potential nuances in personal and household risk, this communication should begin as soon as possible.
  • Shelter characteristics, such as capacity and social distancing measures, will determine the risk associated with using communal shelters. To the extent possible, smaller methods of shelter should be used to prevent spread of COVID-19.
  • It would be prudent to prepare plans, COVID-19 cleaning equipment, and masks in shelters ahead of time.
  • Because more people may shelter in place, the response phase will need to be accelerated. Virginia might wish to be prepared to enact mutual aid for utilities and hospitals more quickly than under normal circumstances so as not to exacerbate health consequences.
  • Self-evacuations by car could be a major source of spread for COVID-19. Evacuees should be informed of best practices for safe travel and the risks associated with various destinations.
  • Extensive testing of evacuees throughout hurricane season, particularly prior to hurricane landfall, can better inform policymakers of the risks.

This research was funded by the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and carried out within the Access and Delivery Program in RAND Health Care and the Community Health and Environmental Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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