June 26, 2020 -- Data from people’s personal cell phones shows that Americans are moving around at almost the same levels as before the pandemic, according to researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The data, which is anonymized, is collected as part of the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network. The network is run by infectious disease epidemiologists at universities across the world who work with technology companies to aggregate mobility data.
“Mobility data suggest people are moving around in nearly normal ways,” though it varies by region, Caroline Buckee, an epidemiologist at Harvard, told The Harvard Gazette.
“That started several weeks ago,” she said. “It foreshadows the uptick in cases that we’re seeing in many parts of the country, for sure.”
Although the data gives a real-time view about movement, it can’t show behavior such as social distancing, handwashing practices or mask wearing, she added. The data also can’t show virus transmission.
At the same time, researchers have been intrigued by the differences in data according to region. In the Northeast, for instance, movement has been slower since the states imposed stringent shelter-in-place orders and eased restrictions slowly. Other states reopened quickly, which showed a quicker uptick in movement.
In states that have reported record numbers of new coronavirus cases in the past week, such as Arizona, Florida, and Texas, the increase still seems to be part of the first wave, Buckee said.
“As a nation, we’re still very much in the first surge of this outbreak,” she said. “Are we winning the fight against COVID in this country? I think that’s demonstrably false. We’re really struggling.”
The network will continue to track movement data to see how it correlates with cases. Buckee is also looking at other data sources to understand how reopening schools and universities in the fall could influence the spread of the coronavirus. College dorms, in particular, could be an important area to monitor.
“It’s something we will want to watch very carefully because we know it will lead to transmission if a virus gets into a dorm setting,” she said.