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UW model shows how COVID-19 spreads through neighborhoods like Capitol Hill


A new study from a research team led by UC Irvine and the University of Washington shows how demographics and density could contribute to speed the spread of an outbreak through neighborhoods like Capitol Hill.

The “spatial heterogeneity” model published last month “factors in network exposure — whom one interacts with — and demographics to simulate at a more detailed level both where and how quickly the coronavirus could spread through Seattle and 18 other major cities,” UW announced this week.

“The most basic takeaway from this research is risk,” co-author Zack Almquist, assistant professor of sociology at the UW, said. “People are at risk longer than they think, the virus will last longer than expected, and the point at which you think you don’t need to be vigilant means that it just hasn’t happened to you yet.”

The model shows a neighborhood by neighborhood, sometimes block by block forecast for how quickly a virus can spread across Seattle based on demographics, simulation techniques and COVID-19 case data from spring 2020. In the model, some areas would reach their peaks in around three months while others would smolder for much longer without intervention like a vaccine.

This map based on the study’s model shows the timing in days for areas of Seattle to reach their peak number of cases — “The color is the timing of infection spread, with red occurring first, and blue occurring last (scale depicted in the lower right). Black means no infection (this can be seen more clearly on the zoomed-in figure around Capitol Hill). In the zoomed-in map of Capitol Hill in the lower right, dots represent residents and colors again represent infection timing; social connections are shown as gray/black edges. Neighborhood boundaries are provided by Zillow.” (Image: Zack Almquist/U. of Washington)

In the map above based on the model utilizing data from the spring outbreak, Seattle neighborhood hot spots emerge near the densely populated and younger areas near the University of Washington.

Extremely dense nearby areas like Capitol Hill also show a relatively quick “burst” of positive cases. Meanwhile, less dense and sometimes more far flung areas show a slower progression.

Other neighborhoods close to Capitol Hill, however, can also show a slow burn if they are less densely populated — and wealthy. Broadmoor and Madison Park’s edges along Lake Washington appear as virtually walled from the viral spread.

Latest totals from King County/Seattle Public Health

The researchers hope their work will help to more effectively plan resources and prepare hospitals for waves of cases as “denser areas tend to peak sooner” and “network connections” cause “bursty” peak infection days, “with some areas seeing early peak infections and others seeing it much later based on the neighborhoods’ relative connections with each other.”

The research comes as Seattle and King County are part of a third peak of COVID-19 cases growing into the fall with officials encouraging more frequent use of masks to help stem the latest outbreaks.


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