Homophily in risk and behavior complicate understanding the COVID-19 epidemic curve
New COVID-19 diagnoses have dropped faster than expected in the United States. Interpretations of the decrease have focused on changing factors (e.g. mask-wearing, vaccines, etc.), but predictive models largely ignore heterogeneity in behaviorally-driven exposure risks among distinct groups. We present a simplified compartmental model with differential mixing in two behaviorally distinct groups. We show how homophily in behavior, risk, and exposure can lead to early peaks and rapid declines that critically do not signal the end of the outbreak. Instead, higher exposure risk groups may more rapidly exhaust available susceptibles while the lower risk group are still in a (slower) growth phase of their outbreak curve. This simplified model demonstrates that complex incidence curves, such as those currently seen in the US, can be generated without changes to fundamental drivers of disease dynamics. Correct interpretation of incidence curves will be critical for policy decisions to effectively manage the pandemic.