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Anonymized cell phone data is helping Virginia’s local health officials select mobile vaccine sites

The strategy is meant to increase access, but experts say hesitancy still remains a barrier to the shots
Maria Briscoe, a volunteer with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps, vaccinates Bristol resident...
Maria Briscoe, a volunteer with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps, vaccinates Bristol resident Aaliyah Belcher at a library vaccine clinic.(Kate Masters/Virginia Mercury)
Published: Oct. 15, 2021 at 9:46 AM EDT
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In early spring, Virginia health officials launched large community vaccination clinics with the highest of hopes. The sites, set up to administer thousands of doses of coronavirus vaccine, were selected with equity in mind — all placed in communities with diverse populations and high rates of infection. At the time, state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said Virginia was doing a “very good job” at expanding vaccine access to underserved communities.

Then, something unexpected happened. Attendance at the sites slowed to a trickle. Some, like a community vaccination center in Danville, were overrun with more out-of-town visitors than locals. Others administered far fewer shots than their capacity allowed. Visits slowed so much in Danville that state officials considered closing the site early, said Dr. Scott Spillmann, director of both the Danville-Pittsylvania and Southside Health Districts.

“There was an initial surge and then the numbers really dropped off,” he added. “And the state was discouraging people from driving long distances to get their vaccinations.”

The experience spurred Spillmann to reach out with a more novel request — data that could help inform the placement of mobile vaccine units. The big sites were good at reaching Virginians who were eager and willing to get their shots, he said. But they weren’t attracting residents in more remote parts of his districts, who weren’t always close to Danville or ready to get vaccinated.

“We were really trying to ascertain, ‘Where were people living and working?’” he said. “‘Where was the right place to go.’”

The questions spurred a statewide approach that’s still being used today. Spillmann reached out to researchers at the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute, which developed a data dashboard for state and local health officials soon after Virginia reported its first cases. The reports include information on mobility, drawn from anonymized cell phone data collected by a company called SafeGraph, showing where and when Virginians were traveling to help understand the impact of safety restrictions.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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