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Gov. to use cellphone tracking data in deciding whether stay-at-home order should be ‘tightened’

Alamance County residents aren’t doing enough to limit non-essential travel and interactions with others, according to “scoreboard” has been developed to gauge whether social distancing guidelines and a statewide stay-at-home order are slowing the spread of the coronavirus in North Carolina.

Unacast, a data analytics firm in New York City that created the scoreboard, gave Alamance County a C- grade, along with 19 other North Carolina counties, based on the latest data available by press time Wednesday.

In the two weeks since Unacast launched its “social distancing scoreboard,” Alamance County has experienced a decrease of 60 to 65 percent in “non-essential visits” and a decrease of 25 to 40 percent in average mobility, which is based on cellphone data that shows distance traveled, according to the firm’s developers.

Alamance County received an F for each of the five days after the stay-at-home order took effect March 30.  As of Saturday, Alamance County’s grades had improved to a C-, where it remained as of press time.  (No grades were issued for the county between Sunday and Tuesday, according to the firm’s scoreboard.)

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By comparison, Alamance County’s grade of C- was better than two-thirds of the state’s 100 counties: 67 N.C. counties had a D or D-, and two (Bladen and Vance counties) had an F as of press time, Unacast’s scoreboard reveals.  The remaining 15 counties had A and B grades, based on Unacast’s calculations.

Unacast built its social distancing scoreboard to enable policy makers, researchers, and health officials to determine whether their efforts to control the spread of the virus are working, according to Madeline Ngo, head of product and insights for Unacast.  [Statewide and county coronavirus cases reported on Unacast’s scoreboard appear to lag the latest figures from the state Department of Health and Human Services.]

The firm’s assessment of non-essential travel in North Carolina may portend what’s in store for North Carolinians in the weeks ahead, as Governor Roy Cooper alluded this week to a possible extension of his stay-at-home order beyond the current expiration date of April 29. 

Cooper confirmed during a news conference last Friday afternoon that his administration is reviewing data, to include anonymous cellphone tracking data, to determine whether North Carolinians are complying with the stay-at-home order, WRAL reported.  “These interventions that we put in place can be tightened even more if necessary,” he told reporters last Friday.

During the same news conference, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services director Mandy Cohen warned: “People should only be out to be buy food, to get medication, to get health care, or if they are an essential worker.”

The governor’s stay-at-home order forced all “non-essential businesses and operations” to close, nearly doubling the number of N.C. workers seeking unemployment benefits. Nearly 200,000 unemployment claims had been filed since March 17, when Cooper issued an executive order that directed bars to close and restaurants to serve take-out only; as of last Friday, more than 370,000 claims had been filed, according to the state Division of Employment Security.

Counties directly east and west fared slightly better at staying home

 Unacast’s scoreboard reveals that the counties directly east and west of Alamance County fared only slightly better in limiting non-essential travel.  As of press time, Orange County had a B-, based on 65 to 70 percent reduction in non-essential visits and a 40 to 55 percent reduction in average mobility.   Guilford County also had a B-, based on similar reductions in non-essential visits and average mobility, the firm calculated.

Unacast derived its calculations from “tens of millions of anonymous mobile phones and their interactions with each other each day,” according to Thomas Walle, CEO and co-founder of Unacast, which is offering its services free of charge to help public health officials and policy makers respond to the coronavirus.   Initially, the firm analyzed changes in average time spent and around home; changes in “activity clusters,” or the number of people gathered in the same location at the same time; and changes in average distance traveled.  Unacast has since adjusted its analysis to reflect measures that have been taken to control the virus’ spread, to include stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines, Walle explained late last month.

The firm gave the state overall a grade of C-, based on its calculation that non-essential visits had decreased less than 55 percent and average mobility had decreased between 40 and 55 percent as of Wednesday. 

Unacast breaks down its letter grades for reduction in non-essential visits and average mobility as follows: A = more than 70 percent decrease; B = 55 to 70 percent decrease; C = 40 to 55 percent decrease; D = 25 to 40 percent decrease; and F = less than 25 percent decrease.

The firm categorizes places such as grocery stores, pet stores, and pharmacies as “essential venues.”  Non-essential venues include: restaurants (of any kind); department and clothing stores; electronics stores; office supply stores; and car dealerships, among other venues, many of which Cooper had already ordered to close under an executive order that took effect on March 25.

Unacast is developing models that predict whether existing measures are sufficient in limiting non-essential travel, or stricter measures are needed to control the virus, according to Ngo.

Unacast’s developers believe that the ideal decrease in nonessential travel is 70 percent, which reflects a decrease of between 70 and 80 percent that Italy has experienced since it went into a nationwide lockdown early last month.  That measure, prohibiting people in Italy from leaving home except for work and emergencies, remained in effect as of press time Wednesday night, multiple media outlets have reported.  Italian military have been deployed to assist police in enforcing the nationwide lockdown, NPR reported when the order took effect.

Alamance County fares better on new Google mobility report

Google is among the big tech firms that are using anonymous cellphone data – collected from built-in GPS tracking systems – to help government and public health officials gauge whether social distancing and stay-at-home orders are effective in controlling the spread of the coronavirus. 

Google has built a dashboard that anyone can download.  Google began publishing its “COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports” last Friday.  The company is collecting user location data to analyze trends in people’s movements over time – by location – and at places such as retail stores, recreation, grocery stores, pharmacies, transit stops, workplaces, and homes, according to two of the firm’s executives.  Google is also offering its reports to help policymakers in determining how to respond to the coronavirus.

Google’s report reveals that trips to retail stores and recreation venues (excluding parks) in Alamance County have decreased by 39 percent since March 29.  Trips to workplaces had decreased by 33 percent in Alamance County; trips to transit stops had decreased by 18 percent; and trips to grocery stores and pharmacies had decreased by 7 percent since March 29, based on Google’s calculations.

On the flipside, trips to parks in Alamance County increased by 34 percent during the same period, while trips to residential locations increased by 9 percent, according to Google.

Statewide, trips to retail stores and recreation venues (excluding parks) have decreased by 40 percent for the state as a whole since March 29, according to Google’s report.  Trips to transit stops have decreased by 51 percent; to workplaces, by 35 percent; and to grocery stores and pharmacies by 15 percent.  Trips to parks and residential locations have increased by 13 percent and 10 percent, respectively, Google’s mobility report for North Carolina reveals.

National Guard deployed to assist with coronavirus response

Meanwhile, Mike Sprayberry, director of the state Department of Emergency Management, said Monday at a news conference that the N.C. National Guard (NCNG) will be deployed later this week to coordinate planning at 10 county EMS centers around the state to deal with an expected surge in new cases of the virus. 

The NCNG has already been delivering shipments of supplies to Alamance County.  The NCNG delivered disposable, non-medical-grade latex gloves on Friday and cleaning supplies on Sunday, with both shipments designated for Alamance Partnership for Children, according to daily situation reports that the county compiles, detailing the local response to the coronavirus.

As of Tuesday, the NCNG had deployed more than 240 soldiers across the state to deliver supplies and assist with other efforts related to the coronavirus, according to Sergeant 1st class Robert Jordan of the NCNG.

“Social distancing and staying at home is our best weapon in this fight,” Cooper noted in a Twitter post Tuesday afternoon.  “I know many of you are wondering if this North Carolina model means our stay-at-home order will continue into May. The answer is we just don’t know yet.

“Modeling is one of a number of tools we are using to make informed decisions in this fight,” he added in a subsequent Twitter post.  “We’ll look at this and other models, analyze experiences in other countries and states, and consult public health experts and business leaders. But it is clear that right now, at least through April, people need to stay at home and keep their social and physical distance from each other. E very day – several times a day – we are looking closely at whether our efforts and interventions are doing enough.”

Could next order prohibit North Carolinians from buying clothes and other “non-essential” goods?

Cooper also wrote on Twitter this week that he is working on another executive order that “will put more guardrails on social distancing” at “essential retail stores.”  Those “guardrails,” which Cooper didn’t elaborate on, would be on top of limits on the number of people who are allowed inside Target, Walmart, and Home Depot stores that those retailers have voluntarily put in place within the last week.

Some local governments in the U.S. have also started banning “essential retail” businesses, including Target and Walmart, from selling “nonessential” products, such as clothing and electronics,in an effort to reduce foot traffic, Business Insider reported Wednesday (see related story about new restrictions within the city of Burlington, this edition).

In North Carolina, New Hanover County was the only one in North Carolina that has asked “essential business retailers” to block customer access to “any portion of its facility dedicated to non-essential goods that it is reasonably capable of closing,” according to New Hanover County government.  Its list of “non-essential goods” includes:  clothing, other than specific items used to make cloth face coverings; furniture; sporting goods; toys for people or pets; music and movies; greeting cards; and party supplies, according to a breakdown that New Hanover County published Wednesday.

Cooper hasn’t said whether that thinking may factor into his forthcoming order concerning essential retail businesses in North Carolina.

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