COVID-19 outbreaks may be predicted via cell phone data

Anonymous cellphone data can help predict COVID-19 outbreaks up to three weeks in advance, research suggests.

Monika Warzecha 2 minute read April 8, 2021
COVID-19 outbreak predictions

A CMAJ study suggests mobility data from smartphones can predict COVID-19 outbreaks. Getty

Anonymous smart phone data can not only be a good indicator of whether Canadians are spending more time outside the house, but it can also tip off health officials to future COVID-19 outbreaks, new research says.

A  study from the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) suggests that mobility data “strongly predicts” SARS-CoV-2 growth rate up to 3 weeks in the future.

Researchers looked at anonymized smartphone mobility data from March 15, 2020, to March 6, 2021, both nationally and provincially, as well as 888,751  infections that occurred over the time period. A group of experts across a number of Canadian universities, hospitals and public health institutions analyzed the data and found that a “10 per cent increase in the mobility of Canadians outside their homes correlated with a 25 per cent increase in subsequent SARS-CoV-2 weekly growth rates,” according to the press release.

The study authors believe the findings can help guide health officials and governments as to when to use restrictions to help clamp down on the highly infectious virus. The  authors write that the mobility information “can provide more timely and reliable sources of information on contact rates compared with time-use surveys or contact tracing.”

Many parts of Canada are currently experiencing a jump in infections. On Wednesday, Ontario announced a stay-at-home order amid a third wave of infections and alarming reports of a spike in hospitalizations. British Columbia and parts of the Prairies are also grappling with an increase in infections related to new variants of the virus.

Though Canadians have been receiving COVID-19 vaccines since mid-December, the study suggests that nonpharmaceutical public health interventions, such as physical distancing measures, are necessary to keep the virus at bay.

“Stringent measures will continue to be necessary through spring 2021 in Canada,” writes Dr. Kevin Brown, Public Health Ontario, with coauthors.

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