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March 24, 2020

Community Transmission: Counties Are the Front Lines in Virus Battle

George Leopold

Source: Esri

The foot soldiers in the battle against COVID-19 are increasingly relying on location data to track resources and stem the spread of the virus, often one county at a time.

With much of the responsibility for public safety and health falling to county officials, groups like the National Association of Counties have been working with data partners to track and respond to the outbreak. A key contributor to the effort is geospatial data specialist Esri, which last week released its software to public and private researchers on its COVID-19 hub.

Este Geraghty, Esri’s chief medical officer, said the hub is being updated daily, and includes applications, data sets and maps. Dashboards and applications include links to the World Health Organization (WHO) and Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 tracker sites.

Johns Hopkins University, which operates a coronavirus resource center web site, this week released a more granular version that tracks the outbreak by county. The map layer is supported by teams from Esri and the university.

“Johns Hopkins University is interested in working with states who are providing county case data as a feature layer, so that [university researchers] can source from the state directly,” Esri’s Jim Herries said in a blog post.

Geraghty noted that the Johns Hopkins University site tracks confirmed as well as “presumptive” cases, hence its totals are slightly higher than WHO statistics. The university researchers “have quite a sound methodology” for tracking the virus, she added.

Rita Reynolds, CTO of the National Association of Counties, said geolocation data is being used to track community transmission of the virus along with providing local services ranging from available hospital beds to keeping tabs on volunteers at food banks.

The group has established a technology exchange aimed at county IT managers, CIOs and chief information security officers. Those data tools are being used to coordinate the local government response to the pandemic, Reynolds said.

“Everyone is looking for tools and opportunities to make informed decisions [to] deliver services as quickly as we can,” said Esri’s Geraghty. The company’s tools and data sets are being used by county officials “to get the lay of the land [in order] to make good decisions,” she added.

Among the data on the Esri hub are sets covering local demographics, population density, health care availability and real-time traffic reports. The hub also aggregates updates from WHO, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its European counterpart.

Esri promotes its free tools as a way for county governments can spin up their own COVID-19 resource hubs.

County cites can then be used to map local outbreaks, vulnerable populations and available resources such as testing sites, hospitals and clinics. “Time-enabled maps can reveal how infections spread over space and time,” Geraghty said. “You can glean speed and direction of spread to determine when and where you may want to target interventions.”

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