Are South Dakotans actually socially distancing? One company thinks it has the answer

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Public health experts believe social distancing is the key to less deaths in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic and South Dakota gets a “C” rating, according to a company tracking location data from cell phones.

On Tuesday, The White House projected there could be 100,000 to 240,000 deaths in the U.S. from the coronavirus pandemic even if current social distancing guidelines are maintained.

Public health officials stressed the number could be less if people across the country bear down on keeping their distance from one another.

“We really believe we can do a lot better than that,” said Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force. That would require all Americans to take seriously their role in preventing the spread of disease, she said.

The White House extended its guidelines to prevent the spread for the month of April.

Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

A model Birx referenced, developed by the University of Washington, shows between 106 and 414 deaths in the state through August. However, as KELOLAND News reported earlier this week, that’s only if certain social distancing measures are enacted.

On a media call, Wednesday with public health officials, South Dakota Secretary of Health Kim Malsam-Rysdon said the state is aware of the model, but expressed some issued with understanding how it analyzes social distancing and other mitigation efforts.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also cautioned that while models are useful, they don’t tell the entire picture.

“What I like to do — as a scientist, a physician, a public health official — is to not ignore models,” said Fauci. But to “look at the data as it’s evolving and do everything you possibly can to mitigate that instead of getting overly anxious about the extremes of the model.”

Gov. Kristi Noem (R-SD) made clear in an afternoon media briefing she has no plans to issue a stay-at-home order or force restaurants to close like many other states have. On Wednesday alone, three more states — Florida, Nevada and Pennsylvania — added or expanded their stay-at-home orders.

Instead, the governor said she is going to continue to leave it up to local control, creating a patchwork of regulations across the state.

Noem also said the peak infection date is pushed out to July or August. She had previously expected the peak to be in late May or early June.

“The numbers we see are pretty encouraging because we have a state that is pretty rural and remote,” she said.

At the White House, Birx said the experiences of Washington state and California give her hope that other states can keep the coronavirus under control through social distancing. That’s because they moved quickly to contain the early clusters of coronavirus by closing schools, urging people to work from home, banning large gatherings and taking other measures now familiar to most Americans, she noted.

“I am reassured by looking at the Seattle line,” she added. “California and Washington state reacted very early to this.”

So, without a statewide mandate, are South Dakotans changing their behavior? That’s what this project by Unicast wanted to find out. Basically, the company looked at cellphone location data, which according to them is not tied to any person, to see the change in average distance traveled per person.

By using that metric, researchers are able to see if people are working from home or avoiding non-essential trips or canceling trips and vacations.

The Social Distancing Scoreboard and other tools being developed for the Covid-19 Toolkit do not identify any individual person, device, or household. However to calculate the actual underlying social indexing score we combine tens of millions of anonymous mobile phones and their interactions with each other each day – and then extrapolate the results to the population level.

Unicast statement on Privacy

According to the data as of April 1, 40 – 55 percent of those in South Dakota changed their mobility based on distance traveled and 60 – 65 percent change in non-essential visits.

Not all counties in the state are equal.

Bennett County, located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, saw an “A” Rating with a 70 percent change in mobility. A similar story in Oglala Lakota County, also on Pine Ridge, with B rating.

Oglala Lakota Nation, as a sovereign area, instituted a shelter-in-place ordinance to prevent the spread of COVID-19 last week.

Another county with a high score is Beadle, where South Dakota’s second death from COVID-19 was confirmed Wednesday. That county has seen a 55 to 70% drop in mobility, as the state identified that county with substantial community spread.

County officials and the City of Huron forced all restaurants to close and allow carryout or delivery only, and shut down entertainment.

Brookings County has only two confirmed cases and both patients have since recovered. That county also received a B score, seeing a 70 percent change in non-essential visits. The City of Brookings enacted stronger local measures and South Dakota State University is no longer in session on-campus, which could be contributing to that.

How did South Dakota’s largest county’s score? Minnehaha, which has part of Sioux Falls in it, and Pennington, which has Rapid City, both got a B-.

The data, which is constantly being updated, shows an overall downward trend.

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