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Study shows King County social distancing restrictions appear to be working

CHS reported over the weekend on an important new forecast from a University of Washington-based research group that shows Seattle is still weeks away from “peak outbreak” and that the rest of the nation is set for weeks and likely months of following in our region’s COVID-19 footsteps.

Now, another key study from local researchers shows that social distancing efforts in King County appear to be working — and must be continued. From the Institute for Disease Modeling:

Real-time data give us insight into trends before they appear in epidemiological data. Aggregated data from ​Facebook Data for Good​ allow us to measure coarse changes in where people spend their time and how much they move around the greater Seattle area; data are aggregated in space and time, and individual users cannot be identified. ​Since March 2, we’ve observed a persistent decline in mobility​, with movement from other regions into Seattle and Eastside dropping by about 90% as of March 28 relative to baseline movement as observed in January and February. Also, we see strong evidence that people have been staying at home, as daytime population occupancy counts in residentially zoned areas of Seattle have increased by 27% on average compared to a baseline (pre-social distancing) period, while the daytime population occupancy in mixed-use areas (primarily comprising downtown Seattle) decreased 43% on average.

In addition to assessing the changes to mobility, the researchers examined King County’s testing and death statistics, the county says. “Using a simulation of COVID-19 testing, diagnosis and death data for King County, they found that a measure of transmission, called the effective reproductive number, dropped by about half from about 2.7 in late February to roughly 1.4 on March 18th,” an update on the research reads. “This number represents the number of new transmissions stemming from each infection. In order to sustain a drop in new cases, each infected person, on average, must infect fewer than one person.”

“We are seeing a positive effect from the social distancing and other measures we’ve put in place, although significant numbers of cases and deaths continue to occur,” Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer for Public Health, said. “It’s important to note that these findings are based on relatively few cases and persons tested, and therefore come with a great deal of uncertainty. Continued monitoring with the measures in place will lead to more reliable data.”

King County Executive Dow Constantine called the findings a sign of “much needed hope that we are making progress against this pandemic.”

The data in the Institute for Disease Modeling report offer much needed hope that we are making progress against this pandemic, and that our strong physical distancing policies are having their intended effect of keeping people healthy. “We have been at this for months, setting up the Health & Medical Area Command on Jan. 21 to coordinate our COVID-19 response – the same day we learned of the nation’s first case in Snohomish County – immediately issuing advisories to hospitals and healthcare providers. We began setting up and transforming properties across the region to serve as isolation and recovery facilities, and we ordered events to be canceled.

He also reiterated that the social restrictions must stay in place.

“Daily life has been turned upside down, and I know people are anxious, seeing days pass without a paycheck, not knowing when kids will get back to school,” Constantine said. “The bit of good news in today’s IDM report should strengthen our resolve to do everything we can to keep people safe, and to get through this crisis together.”

The state’s tightened set of restrictions that closed down many businesses and industries last week is currently planned to run through early April. Gov. Jay Inslee has said he is ready to extend the restrictions. With evidence of efficacy and forecasts for a long battle ahead with the virus, that extension seems likely.

The full report from the institute is below.


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