University of Maryland study ranks states on social distancing

Published: May. 2, 2020 at 11:15 AM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - This week the University of Maryland released a study that ranks all 50 states and the District of Columbia on their effectiveness at social distancing.

The study is known as the COVID-19 Impact Analysis Platform. Dr. Lei Zhang, Director of the Maryland Transportation Institute and his team at UMD have been collecting the data since March to better equip states with data they can use in decision making during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In terms of the percentage of people staying home, we saw a major increase in social distancing behavior in mid-March in Virginia, as well as the rest of the nation,” Zhang said.

Dr. Zhang and his team are able to collect data using the anonymized aggregated location data from cellphones to track where and how frequently individuals are traveling on a county and statewide level across the nation

“We look at a number of different mobility behavior metrics such as the percentage of people staying home, a number of work trips per person, number of nonessential trips and nonwork trips per person,” Zhang said.

Zhang and his team also track how many people travel between states, how many people go to individual counties from out of state or out of the county because these out of town trips tend to also bring viruses to new communities. When these factors are all taken into account, a measure known as the social distance index can be calculated and assigned to each state.

“In a nutshell, the social distance index is a score between zero and 100. If a state or a county gets a score of 100 that simply means that everyone is staying home, that’s perfect social distancing. We only interact with our family members,” Zhang said. “If it’s a zero, it simply means we’re not doing social distancing for the pandemic at all.”

Currently, Washington D.C. is the area with the highest social distance score leading the pack with a social distance index score of 73. From best to worst, it is followed by New York, Hawaii, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, California and Rhode Island. Virginia is currently tied at 11th with Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Florida with a score of 47.

Richmond May Levar Stoney took to Twitter Friday to voice his concern over Virginia’s current ranking, criticizing Virginias who are still not obeying Governor Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home mandates.

“We’re not staying at home and that’s problematic, and so I’m begging and pleading with you to please stay at home,” Stoney said. “The only way we combat COVID-19 is by all of us playing our roll.”

Zhang says the Stoney’s concerns can be seen playing out nationwide as quarantine fatigue begins to set in.

“Since April 14th, for the first time, we saw a drop in social distancing behavior across the nation,” Zhang said. “In Virginia, in the past two weeks, the percentage of people staying home has reduced from 35 percent to 30 percent in terms of the number of trips each person makes that has gone up by 7 percent.”

But Zhang says the proof lies in the numbers and says the numbers in the study are updated daily and the position of states can change if there is enough effort made to practice social distancing.

“Social distancing has been working. We’ve observed a reduction in infection rates in places with higher levels of social distancing.”

Zhang hopes this data can be used as a tool in the fight against COVID-19

“Our hope is that we can learn from this kind of mobility data quickly and combine this kind of data with health data to really provide more comprehensive timely and effective decision making for our leaders,” Zhang said.

If you would like to see a further breakdown of the numbers state by state in the study click HERE.

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