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April 29, 2020

COVID-Induced Cabin Fever Erodes Distancing Gains

George Leopold

via Shutterstock

An analysis of smartphone location data since mid-March reveals an outbreak of what’s benignly been described as “quarantine fatigue.”

University of Maryland researchers studying how social distancing and shelter-in-place orders are affecting travel patterns and the spread of the novel coronavirus reported an uptick in U.S. travel during the week of April 13. The university’s COVID Impact Analysis Platform tracks smartphone location data to determine metrics such as the percentage of resident in each state that stay home, number of trips per person and miles traveled.

It then comes up with an index that reveals the extent to which residents and visitors are practicing social distancing. A related policy index links social distancing to COVID-19 cases, and is used as a guide for imposing and lifting social distancing rules.

The researchers reported in mid-April that shelter-in-place compliance remains low. “The percentage of people staying home nationwide increased from 20 percent to 35 percent at the onset of COVID-19 in mid-March but then stagnated at 35 percent for three weeks, despite skyrocketing new COVID-19 cases,” they said.

The stay-at-home figure dropped to 31 percent by April 17. Those declines followed about six weeks of steady or increasing compliance. The biggest declines in the social distancing index were in a tier of southern and mid-Atlantic states, including Georgia and South Carolina, which are allowing businesses and beaches to reopen.

New York State and the District of Columbia had the highest stay-at-home rates, but the researchers note that their percentages had stagnated at about 54 percent since shelter-in-place restrictions were imposed.

“We saw something we hoped wasn’t happening, but it’s there,” Lei Zhang of the Maryland Transportation Institute at the University of Maryland told the Washington Post. “It looks like people are loosening up on their own to travel more.”

The COVID-19 platform tracks smartphones via anonymized and aggregated location data generated by mobile apps. Residents were presumed to have stayed home if their smartphone did not move more than a mile on a given day.

The mobility data set is huge, with more than 100 million mobile devices sampled monthly. Hence, Zhang told the newspaper that even a slight change in its quarantine index is statistically significant.

Evidence of greater travel has turned up on social media, including images posted on April 29 showing traffic jams around large east coast cities, including Orlando, Fla.

The platform’s developer said it plans to combine mobility metrics with health care and demographic data along with statistics like unemployment figures and business activity to build “a richer set of metrics that aid in understanding how COVID-19 is affecting our society.”

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