Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are using geolocation data from cellphones to track the effectiveness of social distancing across the country.
The research shows social distancing is working — but it’s still too soon for people to let their guard down, says Lauren Ancel Meyers, a professor of biology and statistics who leads the university's COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.
Researchers use the geolocation data to form projected mortality curves for each state and the U.S. as a whole. The curves show the rate of new deaths has declined in many states and nationwide thanks to social distancing, she says.
“People are really cutting off contact with each other in a way that is stopping the disease from spreading,” she says.
The model attempts to project how many people will die from COVID-19 three weeks into the future. While the researchers can’t directly see how much people interact, she says anonymized geolocation data from tens of millions of cellphones provide some insight.
The data tell researchers how much time people spend at home and how often they go to public spaces such as grocery stores and pharmacies where they could come in contact with or spread the disease, she says. A company called Safe Graph is giving this kind of data to researchers at the University of Texas and across the country to support more data-driven COVID-19 models, she says.
Over the last month, the amount of time people spent at home increased and the rate of folks gathering in public spaces has decreased, she says. This leads researchers to project a continuing decline in COVID-19 deaths for the coming weeks, though the model can only project three weeks into the future.
“We can only see what people are doing until today,” she says. “We don't know how that behavior will change next week or next month.”
While these results sound uplifting, Meyers says this doesn’t mean life should return back to normal just yet.
The research shows it took extensive social distancing measures to mitigate the threat of the virus in the U.S., she says — and that we can make choices to protect the health of people in our communities. For now, people need to keep making that decision, she advises.
“We have to continue to take precautions that either prevent contacts between people or really reduce the possibility of transmission if we do have to come in contact with each other,” she says. “If we relax that now, if we go back to life as normal, unfortunately this virus will just start spreading at the rate that it originally started spreading when it first arrived in our cities.”
People can check their state’s projections on the team’s website. A lot of big states that experience large numbers of deaths and cases now look like they’ve passed their peak or will within the next two weeks, she says.
“It's looking positive in many states around the country at this point,” she says. “But … that could change very easily if people's behavior changes.”
This segment aired on April 23, 2020.