Cell phone data shows where most people visited during the pandemic

Friday, November 13, 2020
Data suggests where people are going the most during pandemic
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New cellphone positioning data has revealed where the largest gatherings are happening during the pandemic, and it could suggest the highest concentration of COVID-19's spread.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- With the positivity rate increasing in Houston, we took a look at where people are going in Harris County.

ABC13 analyzed cellphone data from a company called Safegraph to look at the kinds of places that people are going in Harris County. We went back to March, around the time of the shutdown, and examined the months since.

The data does not identify individual cellphones or people. Rather, it's a sample of the locations of cellphones across the country, and provides some clues about the kinds of places we've been going, like businesses, churches, parks and schools.

Examining data from last week, ABC13 found the most visited places were malls, followed by restaurants and gas stations.

What's also interesting is when you compare our activity this month to right after the lockdown.

For example, at the start of April, visits to drinking places fell by more than 80%, and trips to restaurants dropped by 73%. After reopening in May, we didn't wait long to get back out. Visits to drinking places and sit down restaurants doubled, while visits to churches and daycare centers decreased.

RELATED: Cell phone data shows people moving around less after stay-at-home order

Fast forward to the first full week in November: visits to shopping malls and strip malls are down just 3% compared to pre-COVID-19 months. Restaurants are down only 20 to 30% compared to before the pandemic.

Residents like Tiffannie Jones said she continues to wear a mask and takes precautions when going out.

"I basically kind of go everywhere I would normally go, and I just kind of judge it once I get there depending on how they're practicing social distancing. And if I feel like if they're doing a good job, then I'll come back," said Jones.

Again, the cellphone data doesn't show where the virus is spreading, but we do know community spread is a concern. To help stop the spread of the virus, the city of Houston has contact tracers.

"We follow up on a case that we receive within 10 days of the specimen collection date because that's really our time to make a difference and actually stop the transmission of COVID-19," said Beau Mitts from the city of Houston Health Department.

The information can help the city identify clusters of cases, which helps them know where to test people.

"When we use the cluster information, it really helps guide our testing. So when we identify certain geographic areas in town that are having more cases, certain zip codes or maybe even certain venues, then we would send out our mobile testing team to do testing," said Mitts.

Here are some important tips for you to know if you're contacted by a city of Houston contact tracer:

When you receive an initial call from a contact tracer at the Houston Health Department, the number displayed will be 713-853-8700. If you receive a call on a landline phone, the caller ID displayed will be Houston Health at 713-853-8700.

As a follow up to an initial call, a contact tracer from the Houston Health Department (HHD) may call or text you from their HHD mobile phone, which could be from many different phone numbers.

Automated text messages from Houston Health Department contact tracers will come from 35134, 73940 or 39242.

Contact tracing automated email assessments from the Houston Health Department will come from houstonhealthdepartment@qualtrics-survey.com.

If you receive a call, text or email regarding contact tracing and you are unsure if it's legitimate, please call the Houston Health Department COVID-19 Call Center at 832-393-4220.

Contact tracers will never ask for your social security number, bank information or credit card number.

Information gathered during the contact tracing process is not used for any other purpose.