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Cellphone data reveals hotspots where social distancing was lacking in the U.S.

Experts have identified “hotspots” in the United States where social distancing levels have been low during the COVID-19 pandemic. A team of researchers led by Professor Rajesh Narayanan at Louisiana State University used cellphone data to track how various populations changed their social behaviors according to governmental restrictions or various demographic factors, such as population density or having children in the home. 

The analysis revealed that the influence of demographics and government regulations on social distancing are strongly intertwined, but that guidance from authorities has the lesser influence.

The spread of COVID-19 can be dramatically slowed through social distancing. Some people have voluntarily chosen to maintain a physical distance from others during the pandemic, some have kept their distance as a result of government restrictions, and others have practiced social distancing due to a combination of both. 

Understanding the interplay of demographics and government decisions – the two most relevant factors affecting social distancing – could help inform strategies to reduce the spread of diseases.

To investigate, Professor Narayanan and colleagues created a computational model to represent social distancing behavior across the U.S. The model incorporated tracking data to indicate the amount of time that cellphone users spent at home in counties throughout the country.

Using this model, the researchers explored how stay-at-home behaviors evolved over the first 21 weeks of the spread of COVID-19 in the United States from late January to June, 2020. 

The study examined how these behaviors changed in relation to government restrictions, and also in relation to various demographic factors that could influence decisions to stay at home, such as population density, the presence of children in households, education, race, and income.

The analysis revealed that stay-at-home behavior increased by more than nine times from late January to late March, and then decreased by about half through mid-June. These behavioral changes appear to have been driven by demographic factors to a substantially greater degree than government policies. The researchers found there was also a tendency for behaviors to cluster, creating hotspots of counties with low social distancing.

The findings indicate that promoting voluntary social distancing has the potential to be an effective alternative to governmental restrictions. By encouraging nonmandatory distancing practices, people may feel more willing to accept restrictions and comply with social guidelines, resulting in an even greater degree of distancing.

“Cell phone location and mobility data reveal that social distancing in the U.S. during the Covid-19 pandemic was initially voluntary rather than a response to governmental jurisdictional restrictions,” said Professor Naryanan. “As the pandemic progressed, both effects reinforced each other, increasing social distancing far more than what could be explained by the sum of the individual effects.” 

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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