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Texas A&M study identifies four major predictors of COVID-19 spread

Published: Nov. 23, 2020 at 11:21 PM CST
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - A recent Texas A&M study points to four major predictors of areas likely to experience higher rates of COVID-19 spread and positivity rates.

The study was conducted by a Texas A&M aerospace engineering doctoral student named Richard Whittle and aerospace engineering assistant professor Ana Diaz Artiles who looked at data collected across New York City in the first month of the pandemic. Whittle says the data showed them that higher positivity rates were found in areas with higher population density, lower-income neighborhoods, higher population of young dependent children, and a higher black population.

“We did what’s called an ecological study, where we aggregated data over zip code areas and looked at how socioeconomic predictors in those zip codes led to different coronavirus outcomes and different positivity rates,” Whittle said. “In those neighborhoods where we found there were higher positivity rates, it’s probably due to the fact that social dynamics lead to more contact, less ability to social distance.”

Whittle says he’s not qualified to make any sort of specific recommendations based on the findings of his study, but public health officials are the people he hopes will look at what the study found to help them shape their guidance.

“Particularly now, we’re seeing a sort of second wave of the pandemic, and these sort of data and analyses can help inform public policy decisions about where to allocate appropriate resources and where to concentrate efforts to try and reduce impact in the future, especially where financial and health care resources are limited,” Whittle said.

He also points out it’s difficult to make individual inferences from aggregated group data, but Whittle says everything the study found agrees with what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been recommending the public do in order to reduce virus transmission.

“The study was focused on New York, but the methodology could be applied to any major metropolitan area,” Whittle said. “I think to a certain extent, the conclusions we found would probably generalize to any major metropolitan area as well.”

While the data is better suited for predicting virus behavior in larger metropolitan areas, Whittle says his study could be applied to what’s going on here locally under certain circumstances.

“I think with modifications,” Whittle said. “Bryan-College Station itself is a medium-sized rural community. There are not quite the same differences in zip code perhaps that you see in a large metropolitan area such as New York. However, I do think the analysis could be completed on a smaller scale, aggregating in neighborhoods as opposed to zip codes, and I would expect it to get very similar results.”

But Whittle says one thing is very clear - COVID positivity rates are higher in areas where large amounts of people gather. That’s one thing holiday travelers at the Eastwood Airport in College Station say they’re trying to be mindful of while not spoiling their Thanksgiving plans.

“You can tell being in the airport that no one is really uncomfortable. They’re giving space and distance,” Oregon resident Bruce Peterson said, who flew to College Station with his wife so they could spend the week of Thanksgiving with their son. “No, it hasn’t been uncomfortable a bit, and we really didn’t have any reservations.”

Terry Hashey also flew out to College Station to see his son, but he made the trip so they could make the drive back together. That way, Hashey’s son will have his car back home over the extended holiday break put in place this year due to virus concerns.

“We have issues, but it’s like anything else where there’s a risk,” Hashey said. “We mitigate the risk by social distancing and wearing masks.”

Whittle’s study was peer-reviewed and published in BMC Medicine at the end of the summer. He says he’s personally sent it to groups like the CDC, National Institutes of Health, and the White House Coronavirus Task Force in hopes they’ll shape some of their recommendations and guidance on its findings.

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