The coronavirus pandemic has altered the way we communicate, work and interact with one another as social distancing becomes the first line of defense.
But even with encouragement from local, state and federal governments, there is still a struggle to collect data on information about social distancing and contact tracing once someone has contracted the virus.
The Virginia Department of Health has been working on contact tracing efforts, but the system doesn’t seem to be robust enough to adequately trace every single person a positive patient may have come into contact with, said Dr. Steve Julian, Peninsula Health Department acting director.
“I mean contact tracing is when you don’t have a vaccine yet and there’s not really a good treatment other than supportive care,” Julian said. “The way in which you really get a handle on something like this is through contact tracing, right now it’s one of our best weapons.”
Employing enough individuals to adequately contact trace comes with a substantial price tag. According to a report from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, Congress would need approximately $3.6 billion to hire 100,000 contact tracers across the country.
As a result, some tech companies have started exploring the use of smartphone apps to track where people have been within a certain amount of time.
Google and Apple recently announced a partnership to develop a “privacy-preserving” contact tracing data collection service that aims to create an exposure notification system, allowing users to know if they’ve been recently exposed to someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus.
While the technology is still in development, Julian said the VDH Epidemiology Department informed him they had in fact started discussions about whether or not they would start using this technology.
Julian said the organization emailed him, saying they have not developed a position on whether they would use the applications, but they are evaluating its uses in scaling up contact tracing.
The Department of Epidemiology did not immediately respond to confirm or deny if they are considering using the technology.
“I do think it’s helpful in more than one way,” Julian said. “I think it really enhances our ability to do contact tracing because sometimes a person can’t remember all the people they came in contact with and sometimes they can’t be contacted by phone…Contact tracing is a really key component of understanding the spread of the disease and its prevalence in order to control the pandemic.”
In the meantime, other technology is emerging to understand not just contact tracing but how communities have reacted to social distancing.
A national human mobility data collection company, Unacast, has created a social distancing scoreboard that rates individual localities across the country based on geospatial human mobility insights cultivated by proprietary tools, according to the company’s blog.
The scoreboard assigns a letter grade, A through F, to a locality by analyzing the change in distance traveled prior to the pandemic compared to present day. Those that have a 40 percent decrease in average distance traveled are assigned an A while those with 10 percent or less of a decrease are assigned an F.
According to Unacast’s data last updated on Monday, here’s how we scored:
- York County: D-
- James City County: D+
- Williamsburg: C+
Virginia’s average grade is a D. More information on Unacast’s methodology can be found online.
VDH, James City County and Williamsburg said they haven’t used this specific site for data collection, but some would argue there is a general value in understanding social distancing through numbers.
“If taken at face value, the data indicate that Williamsburg residents have fundamentally changed their habits when it comes to unnecessary travel and staying home,” said Steve Roberts Jr., interim spokesman for the city of Williamsburg. “The scores assigned to localities across the nation and the commonwealth show the continuous need to take deliberate action during the pandemic.”
Scott Stevens, county administrator for James City County, said it would be helpful to have real-time data on how people are distancing, but it would be more beneficial at a granular level. For example, he said it would be important to know how this data is impacted in terms of people distancing while out at parks.
“In terms of county areas…I think people are very aware of the social distancing even when the parks have people in them, most times people are keeping apart,” Stevens said. “It’s a new way of business for the county, state and area to get used to what that looks like and how it operates.”
Stevens said data can help craft a better public message to target certain groups of people, but it would need to be more specific in each locality.
“You know, as far as following people’s movements and activities, that becomes very controversial,” Julian said. “I think people in general are doing a pretty good job with social distancing…we’ve seen the results of that with our health care system [that] was not overwhelmed…but I know folks are aware of [the technology] and are very interested in seeing how it can be applied.”
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