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Cell phone activity may predict COVID-19 spread

Cell phone use patterns suggest that when people stay home, coronavirus infection rates go down, researchers say.

For a study published on Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, they analyzed publicly available de-identified cell phone activity and location data collected between January and May from 2,740 counties across the United States.

After mid-February, when the coronavirus outbreak began, cell phone activity declined significantly in workplaces, stores and restaurants, and mass transit stations and increased in homes – with the greatest initial changes seen in areas with higher rates of COVID-19.

Two weeks after cell phone activity shifted away from workplaces and retail locations, the counties with the most pronounced changes had the lowest rates of new COVID-19 cases. “Perhaps reassuringly,” the researchers said, cell phone activity at grocery stores and in areas classified as parks was not strongly associated with rates of growth in COVID-19 cases.

They speculate that publicly available cell phone location data might help health offices better predict COVID-19 growth rates and inform decision about where to implement shutdowns and reopenings

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