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New UT dashboards show the counties most at risk for a COVID-19 outbreak

The risk analysis model the website uses examines more than 3,000 U.S. counties and features three dashboards that focus on risk, exposure and vulnerability.

AUSTIN, Texas — A new set of online dashboards created by researchers at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin show that people living in some of the largest American cities and their surrounding areas face the highest risk of a COVID-19 outbreak.

According to UT, the risk analysis model used by the website examines more than 3,000 U.S. counties and features three dashboards focused on risk, exposure and vulnerability. Counties are scored on 13 different variables across the dashboard, "accounting for socioeconomic circumstances, population density, transportation infrastructure and other important metrics for measuring the pandemic, such as available intensive care unit beds and the average number of new cases."

The researchers behind the new model said it is the most comprehensive look yet at the coronavirus's current and future spread across the U.S. The researchers said other models have mainly focused on the number of cases and deaths in an area to make predictions about trends, rather than looking at a wider variety of risk factors to figure out where increased spread of the virus could occur.

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"This information allows the public and decision-makers to have a better sense of the risk level of each county in terms of infection, fatality, vulnerability and exposure," said Zhanmin Zhang, a professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering who led the development of the dashboards. "Knowing the risks allows people to develop better insights and make more informed day-to-day decisions."

The model currently rates four counties as extreme for both the risk of contracting the virus and dying from it, including Harris and Dallas counties in Texas. Seven of the 10 most populous counties/metro areas in the U.S. rank in the top 10 for infection risk, and six are in the top 10 for death risk.

Credit: University of Texas at Austin
COVID-19 infection and fatality risk for the 25 most populous counties/metro areas. Source: the University of Texas at Austin.

According to UT, infection vulnerability factors include:

  • the number of residents per square kilometer
  • the percentage of workers who use public transit
  • the share of the population that works in industries where remote working isn’t possible
  • the number of apartments and condos as a function of the overall housing stock

Fatality vulnerability metrics include:

  • the percentage of the population over the age of 65
  • the number of ICU beds per 10,000 people
  • the share of adults with health problems
  • the number of people lacking health insurance coverage
  • the percentage of adults with limited English fluency, an indicator that people might have trouble accessing services

And finally, exposure variables include:

  • the presence of busy roads and highways that bring in travelers 
  • 14-day averages of COVID-19 cases
  • the proximity to major airports
  • a social distancing indicator using the number of "point of interest" visitors or people going to gathering places such as restaurants and bars, based on anonymized mobile data

The model is updated weekly.

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