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Colorado Health Institute maps out social distancing challenges with help of cell phone data

The Colorado Health Institute mapped out what parts of Colorado are struggling more with social distancing.

DENVER — As health officials and state leaders work on Colorado's next steps to manage the spread of COVID-19, the Colorado Health Institute mapped out what parts of the state are struggling most with social distancing. 

"I expected to see the population density in Denver mean that  people would have a hard time socially distancing," said Emily Johnson, the institute's director of policy analysis. "But what we really saw was it was the outskirts of Denver -- suburbs, northern Denver, Adams County."

Johnson said income levels, types of jobs and the number of people living in a household are all factors.

Online the study said, 

"...social distancing is harder to practice in some neighborhoods and towns than others — particularly places where more people of color live and incomes are lower than average. Systemic discrimination has created the conditions for these communities, such as crowded housing and low-wage, hands-on work, that make it easier for viruses to spread."

Johnson said there are areas of rural Colorado struggling, too. 

"There are areas [on the] outskirts of Colorado and in northeastern Colorado, where people are really going to struggle more to social distance," said Johnson.

The study summarized it like this:

"Certain rural areas also have a harder time with social distancing. Despite the wide-open spaces on the Eastern Plains, Yuma County and parts of Weld County have crowded living quarters and a high concentration of jobs that require workers to be physically present."

Johnson said essential jobs like grocery store positions and jobs in health care -- jobs people can't do from home -- are found in higher concentrations in rural areas of the state.

"A lot of rural areas of the state don't have, for example, huge numbers of office-based professionals," she said. 

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The health institute analyzed results from the American Community Survey, a census survey taken by 50,000 Coloradans, looking at how many people live in a household and different types of jobs. The institute also looked at population density and income levels, as well as neighborhood demographics. 

Johnson said the findings are important as state and local leaders are figuring out the next steps when it comes to COVID-19. 

"This could help them identify some of those communities at high risk for community-based spread," she said. 

The study was done during the stay-at-home orders, and Johnson said as things change, so will the dynamics around social distancing challenges.  

The institute was able to quickly verify their findings through the help of the Tri-County Health Department, which has been tracking cell phone and Google data across seven counties: Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas and Jefferson.

"We saw a significant drop off in movement when those recommendations are announced or put in place," said Adam Anderson, with the health department. "Sort of, over time, it ticks back up again until the next measure is announced and [we] see it drop off again." 

Typically, private companies sell the data like the health department is using, but it is too expensive for a county health department to buy. In this case, the company, Cuebiq, made the data publicly available because it thought it could be useful.  Anderson said the data doesn't reveal any private information or include identifiable details. Instead, it represents the average movement of all individuals in a county. 

It does allow the health department to compare activity week to week in places like parks and grocery stores. This data is included when evaluating how policies are influencing behaviors.

"For instance, Boulder looks like the entire county basically stopped moving," Anderson said. "We know a lot of technology and professional service related jobs there."

They are the kinds of jobs in which people can work from home. 

Anderson said in Adams County, more people moved based on the types of jobs and incomes in that county. Different industries like arts, entertainment, and recreation, followed by accommodation and food services, are considered vulnerable in Adams County. 

The city of Denver has been working on addressing some of the same disparities mentioned in the study. 

In an e-mail the city said: 

"As the largest city in the state and the most densely populated, Denver has the responsibility of planning for the continued protection of our most vulnerable populations and neighborhoods. We are taking the time now to be thoughtful about how to phase reopening. 

This pandemic has exposed many long-standing disparities in health care treatment for our communities of color. The city's public health experts and Denver Health are analyzing the specific impacts of COVID-19 and will be making recommendations on how we can adjust our response. As a recent example, Denver Health opened testing-by-appointment at their Montbello clinic and is looking to do the same on the Westside. And it has been a priority for Denver to provide PPE, education and access to information to agencies and organizations supporting communities of color as well as those of lower economic status.

Denverites can anticipate more granular guidance, specific to the needs of our communities, in the coming days.

In the meantime, it's important to note that COVID-19 can make anyone sick regardless of their race, ethnicity, neighborhood, socio-economic status, or household size. For many families across our city, it's not always possible to stay at least 6 feet from siblings, kids, parents, and roommates. This is why public health guidelines emphasize good hygiene as well as physical distance. People should take care to clean highly touched surfaces often, wash hands frequently and for at least 20 seconds, avoid touching each other's faces, and keep a close eye out for illness."

The Northeast Colorado Health Department (NCHD) detailed their challenges in an email to 9NEWS: 

"Our unique challenges stem from the fact that we are agricultural based and have quite a few food supply plants in our counties. That leads to a higher percentage of workers that are deemed essential and many of their required duties are not conducive to social distancing. However, NCHD has been working closely with our critical regional businesses to verify that they are following all the CDC guidance for cleaning, PPE and social distancing. We have been impressed with their transparency about efforts to screen staff and enforcing isolation and quarantine when needed."

The health department also added: 

"We have an abundance of essential industries such as agriculture and food supply, where more workers are required to go to work. Based upon the Colorado COVID-19 Social Distancing Index, we also have a high population of aging adults and families near or below poverty level. We have a lot stacked against us."

NCHD said it will be coordinating with emergency managers to create custom guidelines to move into the next phase. 

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