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Researchers Are Tracking Social Distancing Through Cellphones. Here's How Charlotte Is Doing.


Researchers at the University of Maryland are using cellphone data and other sources to track how well states are social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. They find New Jersey and New York are performing the best, Wyoming and Montana are among the worst, and North Carolina falls about in the middle.

North Carolina is 22nd out of all 50 states. We spoke with Dr. Lei Zhang Wednesday to learn more about their research and what the data is showing so far.

Lei Zhang: Researchers at the University of Maryland have been tracking social distancing behavior all across the nation. In terms of the Charlotte metro area, the percentage of people staying home went up steadily in late March and early April, but starting about two weeks ago we first saw a decline in social distancing behavior in the Charlotte region. The percent of people staying home there has gone down from 37% to 30%. In terms of the social distancing index score that we calculate in every county and every state, the score in Charlotte has gone down from 60 to 45, with 100 meaning perfect social distance. 

Nick De la Canal: Now, is that something you guys are seeing elsewhere in the country, or is that something that’s just isolated to our area?

Zhang: So, we first saw the drop in the social distancing behavior in the Southeastern states including North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Initially, we thought it might just be weather getting warmer sooner in this region, and also talk about reopening in South Carolina, Georgia and now all across the country. But then last week when we look at the data, this drop in social distancing behavior now is observed in 48 out of 50 states and the District.

De la Canal: So, is that something that should be a cause of concern? Or is it something local leaders should be keeping in mind when they’re seeing that decline in the last two weeks or so?

Zhang: The public health experts on our team and others we talked to certainly have concerns that this quarantine fatigue, as it appears, is causing people to leave their homes while shelter-in-place orders are still in place. From the public health point of view, yes, this is definitely a concern. But we also understand a lot of people still haven't received their unemployment checks or stimulus checks and they are eager to go out and find jobs or go back to work.

You know, the weather, protests and discussions about reopening, I think all of these combined with the fact that we all have been staying home for longer than a month, have all contributed to this major shift in momentum in terms of such a different behavior.

De la Canal: So later (Wednesday night), Mecklenburg County is going to lift some social distancing restrictions, allowing some businesses to reopen with some conditions. And Gaston County, which borders Mecklenburg, is hoping to open businesses at 5 o'clock (Wednesday), although that's in conflict with our governor’s stay-at-home order. But the argument is that they've seen a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases. I'm wondering if you think that that is a good idea, and just what your hope is for the future?

Zhang: Generally, I think it is apparent that different states and different counties are going to have a different reopening schedule. So one implication is that when we reopen businesses, we will see a lot more travel, a lot of people outside. The second thing is the case you mentioned there in the Charlotte region is not unique. When certain counties of a state reopen sooner than others, there is always this concern that that may draw more trips to these counties and states. With more trips going into a particular place, there are just more chances for active cases.

I think local officials just need to closely monitor the trend of social distancing behavior before and after reopening. Hopefully, there isn't, but if there is any new local outbreak, try to link that back to morbidity data to see if that’s caused by outside people traveling to the county or more of a local community infection issue, or it might have to do with transit or other specific things.

You know, sometimes it could be an outbreak in a supermarket or a church or other places where people gather. In that case, I think contact tracing is going to make a big difference. So, there are a number of different things I think state and local officials can do as we cautiously reopen the economy in certain parts of the country and states first.

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