Journal Article

Income differences in COVID-19 incidence and severity in Finland among people with foreign and native background: a population-based cohort study of individuals nested within households

Saarinen, S., Moustgaard, H., Remes, H. M., Sallinen, R., Martikainen, P.
PLOS Medicine, 19:8, e1004038 (2022)
Open Access


Background: Although intrahousehold transmission is a key source of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) infections, studies to date have not analysed socioeconomic risk factors on the household level or household clustering of severe COVID-19. We quantify household income differences and household clustering of COVID-19 incidence and severity.
Methods and findings: We used register-based cohort data with individual-level linkage across various administrative registers for the total Finnish population living in working-age private households (N = 4,315,342). Incident COVID-19 cases (N = 38,467) were identified from the National Infectious Diseases Register from 1 July 2020 to 22 February 2021. Severe cases (N = 625) were defined as having at least 3 consecutive days of inpatient care with a COVID-19 diagnosis and identified from the Care Register for Health Care between 1 July 2020 and 31 December 2020. We used 2-level logistic regression with individuals nested within households to estimate COVID-19 incidence and case severity among those infected.
Adjusted for age, sex, and regional characteristics, the incidence of COVID-19 was higher (odds ratio [OR] 1.67, 95% CI 1.58 to 1.77, p < 0.001, 28.4% of infections) among individuals in the lowest household income quintile than among those in the highest quintile (18.9%). The difference attenuated (OR 1.23, 1.16 to 1.30, p < 0.001) when controlling for foreign background but not when controlling for other household-level risk factors. In fact, we found a clear income gradient in incidence only among people with foreign background but none among those with native background. The odds of severe illness among those infected were also higher in the lowest income quintile (OR 1.97, 1.52 to 2.56, p < 0.001, 28.0% versus 21.6% in the highest quintile), but this difference was fully attenuated (OR 1.08, 0.77 to 1.52, p = 0.64) when controlling for other individual-level risk factors—comorbidities, occupational status, and foreign background. Both incidence and severity were strongly clustered within households: Around 77% of the variation in incidence and 20% in severity were attributable to differences between households. The main limitation of our study was that the test uptake for COVID-19 may have differed between population subgroups.
Conclusions: Low household income appears to be a strong risk factor for both COVID-19 incidence and case severity, but the income differences are largely driven by having foreign background. The strong household clustering of incidence and severity highlights the importance of household context in the prevention and mitigation of COVID-19 outcomes.

The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.