Interactive map just in time to take guesswork out of road trips

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 02, 2020 7:42 PM CT | Published: July 02, 2020 4:00 AM CT

A new interactive COVID-19 map showing every county in the nation and nearly every nation in the world is a feat of analytics just in time to take some of the mystery out of whether it’s wise to travel for the Fourth of July or not.

Nearly every municipality and principality on the globe is color-coded from green to red, giving an apples-to-apples comparison, perhaps for the first time, on the rate of new cases, testing and hospital capacity per 100,000 people.

County averaging more than 200 COVID-19 cases a day the past 2 weeks

The project is the work of a cadre of sites and COVID-19 analysis, including CovidActNow, to give officials and nonexperts a way to filter out what matters from a rising sea of misinformation. It has become a daunting task, the creators say in introductory information attached to the site, Key Metrics for Covid Suppression. 

“We also collectively need to keep focused on what should be our main target: a path to near zero case incidence,” said Danielle Allen, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. 

Shelby County is orange in an otherwise mostly yellow state. On Wednesday, July 1, the county had 18.6 new cases per 100,000 people.

“It’s not great, but it’s not the worst either,” said Dr. Stephen Threlkeld, the infectious disease expert at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis who has become one of a handful of narrators of the face of the pandemic here.

“If you’re in an orange area, you might locally, and certainly individually, be that much more careful about where you go and what you do.”

People in red counties (Macon is the only one so far in Tennessee) could already be having trouble with their health care facilities being overcrowded, he said.

The risk-assessment tool allows users to drill down in a county or state to see how fast positives are coming in, based on a seven-day running average.

The maps are coded green (least risk of infection), yellow, orange and red.

Communities with less than one case are coded green because Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI), which released the interactive framework, deems them on the road to containment. A jurisdiction with one to nine cases per 100,000 is designated in yellow because that number of cases indicates community transmission. A county or community with 10-24 cases per 100,000 people is orange for “accelerated spread.”

Red indicates places with 25 or more cases per 100,000 and at a “tipping point.” Residents in these places should be under stay-at-home orders, HGHI says.

The framework includes guidance on the intensity of control efforts needed and snapshots of the testing and contact tracing for all risk levels.

Tennessee, which has a 6.9% positivity rate, should be at 3% to suppress the virus, according to the data. The state is currently testing an average of 154 people per 100,000 of population.

Shelby County coronavirus cases top 10,000

To mitigate the infection, it needs to test 408 a day. To suppress, HGHI says, Tennessee needs to hit the 1,504 testing mark.

Pockets of knowledge are tucked throughout, including a graph for each state with the worst levels of disease. Shelby County ranks No. 4 on the worst 14 counties for Tennessee, behind Macon, Davidson and Sevier counties.

If Threlkeld were using the map for travel, he’d be looking at safe counties to stop for gas “and where to stay overnight if traveling across country by car.”

Distance travel by airplane is a nonstarter now, and has been for months, says Jennifer Kruchten, who owns Travelennium travel agency in East Memphis. People who would normally be going to the Caribbean or “here and there” this holiday aren’t going this year or they going someplace they can drive.

“I thought we would get an influx of calls for the Fourth, but we really haven’t. I did have some corporate people who wanted a cabin. I had to charge a 15% service fee because of the amount of research time we had to put in (to find one and verify cancellation policies),” she said.

AAA expects Americans will take 700 million trips this summer, down from 828 million last year, the first decline since 2009. It estimates that 97% of the trips will be by car.

Official: About 13% of local population tested for coronavirus

Its booking trends show Americans are making travel plans, but very cautiously and many at the last minute.

The interactive map “is a good way to see what the new cases per standardized population are for a seven-day moving average,” said Dr. Manoj Jain, the infectious disease expert advising Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

“What you want to know is the trend vs. what’s happened in the past three months. Things have changed dramatically,” he said.

Looking at the map gives viewers a visualization of where the disease is rampant and where it is not. Even so, Jain says he would not be less vigilant in a green county or city.

“I don’t think there is a county in the U.S. or in fact in the world where I would not mask and distance,” he said. “Given today’s environment, that is as basic respectability as saying ‘good morning.’”

He would “think twice” about going to a red county for any reason.

Dr. Kelinda Ramsay, hospitalist at Methodist-North Hospital, likes the idea of an easy-to-navigate map based on data.

“We do have to use science to make good decisions in a pandemic,” Ramsay said. “The map shows high-risk travel vs. not-so-much.”

Concern COVID-19 cases could increase after July 4th weekend

Jain says the visualization could actually help people change their behavior.

“It changes things because it helps us decide things. If I were planning a trip to Macon County, I would say, ‘It’s not a good idea. They are showing 41 average new daily cases per 100,000.’ If I were going to Sullivan County, that’s pretty good. It only has one new daily case over 100,000 people.”

Infectious disease experts likely aren’t going to be far from home this weekend or hosting reunions, but for people who are, Jain has some advice:

“Be outdoors, keep the distance, avoid the hugging, and if some family members have not been very mindful or careful or are frontline workers, I would say they need to be masked. And they have to be distanced.

“When put all together, you significantly reduce the chance of other family members, especially the elderly, getting sick.”

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do. 


coronavirus Harvard University COVID-19 map COVIDACTNOW
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.


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