Virginia barely passes: Cellphone data shows Virginians struggle to maintain social distancing

Coronavirus

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginians have been moving through the commonwealth at the same rate as before the pandemic. Like much of the country, people across the state have struggled to maintain social distancing, an analysis of cellphone location data shows.

Data and analytic firms have been using anonymous cellphone data to examine travel patterns in the United States since the coronavirus pandemic struck. The data provides a glimpse of how people are moving in each state including if those individuals are sheltering in place and potential encounters with other people or groups.

One company, Unacast, has a “Social Distancing Scoreboard” where each state is given a grade based on the average of three metrics that are all compared to the pre-COVID-19 period. The metrics they are tracking include the change in average distance traveled, the change in visitation to nonessential venues and possible human encounters.

Unacast licenses data from the applications people download on to their phones.

“It’s not attached to a name, it’s not attached to an address or anything, and then we look at that from a broader perspective,” Unacast CEO and Co-founder Thomas Walle said. “We have to think about what is the purpose of social distancing, or, back then, shelter in place; it’s to reduce the likelihood of you being infected and reduce the likelihood of you infecting others.”

Unacast, which tracks data by county, determines this last metric by figuring out the probability that two devices were in the same location during the same time. Currently, Unacast’s scoreboard gives the United States a D- grade, the same rating it has for Virginia.

Dozens of localities in Virginia, including Chesterfield, Henrico, Richmond and Petersburg, all have failing grades on the scoreboard as of Nov. 24. Chesterfield, with its population of over 350,000, has had nearly 9,000 total cases of the novel coronavirus. The county has less than a 55% reduction in nonessential visits and less than a 40% decrease in encounters, both of which qualify for a failing score under Unacast’s metrics.

The county in Virginia with the highest grade on the scoreboard is Fluvanna County (B-), which has reported 484 total COVID-19 cases since March and has a population of just over 27,000. Unacast cites a greater than 94% decrease in potential human encounters compared to the national baseline.

“We are updating the Scorecard and enhancing this COVID-19 Toolkit to provide the most timely and accurate information possible, with the hope of ultimately saving lives,” Walle said in April when the scoreboard was launched.

University of Maryland researchers at the Maryland Transportation Institute launched their own platform after the pandemic hit, analyzing anonymous cellphone location data of more than 100 million devices to calculate the extent of how residents and visitors of each state practice social distancing and the percentage of residents staying at home.

The institute’s analysis gives each state a rating between 0 and 100 on its social distancing index. Higher scores indicate that residents are following social distancing guidelines.

As of Nov. 16, the Maryland Transportation Institute’s analysis platform has Virginia’s social distancing index at 40 and shows that only 30% of Virginians are not leaving their homes.

Cuebiq is another data intelligence firm using cellphone data to determine how far people are traveling each day, with several different insights into how this information shows where populations move, if they are sheltering in place after arriving and even how the pandemic has impacted the mobility gap.

Tracking 15 million devices throughout the country, Cuebiq’s analysis into how populations flow through each state found that Virginia trails only Washington, D.C. in terms of total movement. Virginia’s net flow rate, which is determined by subtracting the arrival rate of devices by the departure rate of devices, is currently at 62%, the exact same rate it was on Jan. 4, 2020.

Travel dipped after Virginia’s first coronavirus case in March and when the stay-at-home order from Gov. Northam, but steadily increased and leveled out to previous rates in June.

Although travel has dropped overall since the coronavirus pandemic first hit the United States, fears have grown over people deciding to visit with family for Thanksgiving as cases soar across the nation. These concerns prompted the nation’s top public health agency to urge people against traveling for the holiday in order to impede the spread of the virus.

Bryan Lewis, an epidemiologist and research professor at UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute, said that an increase in cases will depend on how people approach the holiday.

“I expect the travel and extra time indoors between people who aren’t currently in the same bubble to increase transmission,” Lewis said Tuesday. “Our modeling roughly accounts for this in our ‘less control’ scenario, but we have a hard time quantifying how many people will indeed travel this holiday.”

While a survey from the AAA found that 84% of Virginians said they don’t plan on traveling for Thanksgiving, the Richmond International Airport has seen more travelers ahead of the holiday than any other time during the pandemic, an airport spokesman said.

Overall, Virginia has reported nearly 225,000 cases and nearly 4,000 COVID-19 deaths since the commonwealth’s first coronavirus case earlier this year.

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