CORONAVIRUS

Iowans drive more even as pandemic worsens

CDC says mobility raises risk of spreading COVID-19

An Iowa Department of Transportation digital sign displays a message March 26 over a highway in response to the spread o
An Iowa Department of Transportation digital sign displays a message March 26 over a highway in response to the spread of COVID-19 in Des Moines. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES — Iowans, for the most part, have been traveling less throughout the COVID-19 pandemic than they did at the same time last year, multiple sources of data show.

But now Iowans have become much more mobile — even while the virus has been spreading worse than it has at any point in the pandemic so far, the data shows.

Over much of the course of the pandemic in the state — from March 13 to Nov. 19 — travel on Iowa roads decreased nearly 20 percent compared with the same dates the previous year, according to figures from the Iowa Department of Transportation. The biggest drop was in April, with traffic on Iowa roads down 60 percent.

More recently, over the most recent week that data was available, travel on Iowa roads is down just 17 percent.

That is while in Iowa over just the past month the 14-day average number of new COVID-19 cases has quadrupled, the number of daily hospitalizations has tripled and the 14-day average of new deaths has doubled.

In other words, Iowans are traveling more often recently than they did during the early stages of the pandemic, even though COVID-19 has been spreading throughout the state at rates never before seen.

And during the month of September and into early October, travel on Iowa’s secondary roads actually was higher than it was on the same dates the year before, according to the state data.

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An Iowa DOT official cautioned against drawing broad conclusions from travel data on specific types of roads because it can be impacted by myriad factors, including weather — like the Aug. 10 derecho — and agricultural influences, such as harvests.

There are no travel restrictions among the state’s public health orders for the COVID-19 pandemic. But public health experts have continuously urged people to distance themselves from others as much as possible by keeping at least 6 feet between people when possible and wearing masks in public.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says travel increases a person’s chances of getting and spreading the virus, and that staying home is the best way to prevent that. The CDC says people should not travel if they are infected with COVID-19, are sick or if they have been around someone with COVID-19 over the past two weeks.

Another data source, from a company that monitors and analyzes human mobility, also shows Iowans are moving around, on average, slightly less during the pandemic than they did a year ago. But Unacast’s data also shows Iowans’ recent mobility higher than it was early in the pandemic.

The data from Unacast includes average travel compared with pre-pandemic levels; change in travel to non-essential venues like restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters, gyms and fitness centers, hotels, and others; and the probability of human encounters by using mobile device tracking data.

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