SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The rise of Covid has come with huge decreases in personal liberties, limitations on free movement, a tremendous rise in government propaganda, and threats to shut down public debate, down to the level of private text messages.
That is why any conversations by public officials, such as Deputy Health Officer Dr. Mark Fox, regarding tracking and monitoring is noteworthy. Fox works for the St. Joseph County Department of Health. Emails obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request illustrate that Fox showed interest in collecting such data on more than one occasion.
In April 2020, when Indiana was under Governor Eric Holcomb’s stay-at-home orders, Fox discussed the idea of monitoring social distancing through technology.
The idea was suggested by Alex Perkins, an associate professor at the University of Notre Dame, whose specialties include infectious disease dynamics. On April 3, 2020, he emailed Fox:
I wanted to follow up to let you know about a new capability that we might be able to provide soon, if it would be of interest to you. My research group is part of the COVID-19 Mobility Network (https://www.covid19mobility.org/), the idea of which is to leverage data from companies with fine-scale data on human mobility, like Facebook and others, to provide insights into the extent to which people are adhering to social distancing policies and the like. My understanding is that these companies will not share data like this directly with governments, due to concerns about use of the data for purposes other than public health. However, companies participating in the COVID-19 Mobility Network are supportive of researchers like myself performing analyses of these data and disseminating reports to public health officials like yourselves.I’m wondering if you would be interested in receiving reports describing patterns in data like this for St. Joseph County….
Thanks for following up. I think this is intriguing, and increasingly important as I fear the potential for growing fatigue and complacency with stay-at-home guidance as we go further. All of the modeling used to plan for surge rely on assumptions about the impact of stay-at-home and distancing guidelines.
Would love to talk more. When is good for you? Mark
When asked about his discussions with Perkins, Fox said he had follow-up conversations with Perkins regarding mobility data to better understand his work, but that the Department of Health has not been engaged in any research related to mobility in St. Joseph County.
About a week later after his email with Perkins, Fox was part of an email chain with various local officials and hospital leaders. South Bend Mayor James Mueller offered his views on possible re-opening plans for the future. He referred to an article in Vox, which noted that most opening plans sounded extreme. The writer of the piece, Ezra Klein, noted, ” Until there’s a vaccine, the United States either needs economically ruinous levels of social distancing, a digital surveillance state of shocking size and scope, or a mass testing apparatus of even more shocking size and intrusiveness.”
Mueller went on to say, in an email dated April 10, 2020:
It’s difficult to imagine politically accomplishing a comprehensive digital surveillance state here or testing everyone every 14 days for the next year, though not cost prohibitive compared to distancing. As Mark mentioned, I do think we need to start building an unprecedented contact tracing infrastructure, which includes more testing capacity, personnel, and tracking capability.Even if social distancing continues to/through June, we’ll need to do a lot between then and now to be ready.Could this be a project the university’s research team or enfocus might be able to help us with, i.e. scope the numbers for tests, personnel, and budget required?
Fox, who mentions “the need for enhanced surveillance” in an earlier email on the chain, responded:
I think that could be a great and focused project to help develop and scope such an effort, both with respect to rap in testing, serology, and contact tracing, as well as needs for isolation/Quarantine facilities.
Fast forward six months to October, when cases were rising. St. Joseph County, at that point, had accumulated about 7,300 cases. Fox received an email from Joshua Tootoo, Director of Training and Geospatial Sciences at the University of Notre Dame’s Children’s Environmental Health Initiative. Tootoo discussed the idea of identifying virus cases with geocoding, including using addresses and coordinates, in an October 5, 2020 email:
Hello Dr. Fox, It was nice to meet with you again, and great to discuss opportunities for collaboration. During one of our recent meetings, you indicated you were interested in exploring the possibility of our team geocoding COVID19 cases for Saint Joseph County Department of Health (SJCDH)... (W)e would determine which data elements SJCDH will provide for geocoding: for example: unique case identifier, full street address, date, result? • I estimate that geocoding less than 10,000 cases using our batch based approach should take approximately one week’s time. o In all cases the geocoding will occur behind a firewall in our secure computing environment. o Records will be assigned X|Y coordinates, and a census block identifier (this will allow aggregation to all of the US Census’ nested areal units (block group, census tract, and County). o We will provide full metadata on both the geocoding processes and reference data used in geocoding
According to Fox, there have been conversations with the researchers affiliated with the Children's Environmental Health Initiative regarding research interests and capabilities. One of Fox's public health fellows has had some additional training with them to enhance his geo-coding ability, but there has not been any collaborative research conducted to date.