New COVID-19 study examines links between mobility and disease spread
May 3, 2021
Mobility restrictions could be effective only for a short duration, according to a new study published by graduate student Junghwan Kim in the Journal of Transport Geography.
The study analyzed daily mobility data of people in 2,639 counties across the United States, provided as anonymized mobile phone record GPS locations. The location data included mobility data for pre and post-pandemic levels.
Junghwan Kim, doctoral candidate in LAS, is the primary author of the study. His doctoral advisor and second author of the study is Mei-Po Kwan, adjunct professor in LAS.
“My interest in research is understanding the complex relationship between human mobility and environmental health, such as pollution, or in this case the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kim said.
A primary motive for the study was to analyze how the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions affected real-world movement patterns. This would help quantify how effective travel restrictions actually were in reducing movement.
Movement restrictions were rated on the state level and were obtained from the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, which evaluates responses on a sliding severity scale.
Additional variables of interest included population density, poverty levels, political partisanship, COVID-19 severity and the number of mobility restrictions present in each county.
According to the study’s conclusions, movement restrictions were only effective in the short term. Despite the increased severity of the second wave of COVID-19 in the United States compared to the first wave, the study found that mobility decreased at a lower rate and rebounded faster than the first wave.
“One possible theory that I have for this, and we need more data to look and determine more, is the concept of quarantine fatigue, and how people became tired of restrictions despite a more severe pandemic,” Kim said.
Another finding was that counties which were Republican had their mobility rebound to pre-pandemic levels significantly faster than Democratic counties.
“Not only from my own study but from many other studies that reported very similar results that political partisanship explains people’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as wearing masks, with more Republican-leaning people being less willing to wear a mask”, Kim said. “I think that this is really an example of the political nature of the pandemic and COVID-19, which is very different from most countries like South Korea, and speaks about the politicization of a public health issue.”
When the pandemic ends and the evolution of the pandemic can be seen as a whole, Kim would like to do a holistic analysis of mobility data in a similar study in the future.