Cellphone data shows protesters dispersed across Michigan, raising concerns of spreading coronavirus


Cellphone data shows 300 of the people who had gathered in Lansing for "Operation Gridlock" scattered throughout the state after the protest. The color of the dot represents device activity: yellow is more activity, red is lighter. - DOCTORS AT THE COMMITTEE TO PROTECT MEDICARE
  • Doctors at the Committee to Protect Medicare
  • Cellphone data shows 300 of the people who had gathered in Lansing for "Operation Gridlock" scattered throughout the state after the protest. The color of the dot represents device activity: yellow is more activity, red is lighter.

At "Operation Gridlock," last month's right-wing protest in Lansing over Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's coronavirus executive orders, many participants rebelled against social distancing guidelines by standing close together and not wearing face masks. Afterward, Whitmer chided the protesters, saying they could have spread the virus.

That fear is backed up by newly released cellphone data, which shows the protesters dispersing to smaller communities across Michigan in the following days. A map showing devices that were in Lansing that had since scattered across the state was released by an advocacy group called the Committee to Protect Medicare — raising concerns that the protesters could have carried the disease to smaller, rural communities that are ill-equipped to deal with COVID-19 patients.

The data was collected by a firm called VoteMap, which showed more than 300 opted-in devices gathered at Lansing on April 15, representing a sample of those who were at the protest. The firm collected the data using geo-location data from hundreds of other downloaded apps, which the users agreed to share when they approved the terms of service. (According to the group, the data is anonymized for privacy.) A spokesman for CPM says VoteMap does not follow the devices in real time — the map shows when the devices ping the networks during usage. CPM then contracted with VoteMap to get the data to create the visualization.

The Committee to Protect Medicare executive director Rob Davidson called the data "a bright red flag that the irresponsible behavior of a few hundred people could potentially set off a COVID-19 time bomb that will put even more people at risk in communities that are the least equipped to handle a surge of critically sick people."

"Every public health expert and medical professional has been warning America that people who don’t maintain physical distance could be dispersing a highly contagious, lethal virus into their communities and endangering their neighbors and their loved ones," Davidson said in a statement. "These reckless actions threaten to set back all our efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the rate of infections. When more than 63,000 Americans have lost their lives, we must redouble our efforts in following science and data to flatten the curve and save lives and that means staying home, staying safe and avoiding dangerous publicity stunts like we’ve seen in Michigan and elsewhere."

Those concerns are backed up by new data that shows coronavirus cases increasing across the state beyond the initial hotspot of metro Detroit. A Metro Times analysis found at least 24 counties reported a higher rate of increase in new cases over the past 10 days than those in metro Detroit's tri-county area.

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