Mobility data suggests Ottawa may be falling back into old travel habits

Mobility data compiled by Apple shows people are slowly starting to move around more — which may put them at greater risk of getting the COVID-19 virus, says Ottawa Public Health.

Public health agency warns people may be at greater risk of COVID-19 as they travel more

People look at tulips at Commissioners Park in Ottawa, during the Canadian Tulip Festival, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic on Sunday, May 17, 2020. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Mobility data compiled by Apple shows people are slowly starting to move around more — which may put them at greater risk of getting the COVID-19 virus, says Ottawa Public Health.

Apple, along with Google, have made some of its aggregated mapping data public for health authorities to use in responding to the pandemic.

Apple's data suggests rates of walking and driving around Ottawa are starting to steadily increase, compared to a month ago. Transit use is also picking up, but not by as much.

"We're starting to go back to our baseline levels of activity," said Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, during a news conference Wednesday. "The Apple mobility data is showing us [travel] is creeping back up."

(Apple/Mobility Trends Reports)

If travelling around the city brings more people into close contact with each other, that's a problem, she said.

"The modelling tells us that if we go too quickly in relaxing our interactions with others, even if our physical distancing drops by about 20 per cent, we do risk a resurgence in infections," Etches said.

"We do need people to keep in mind as you're getting out there, and you're being more active, that physical distance is what is protecting us from really that upsurge or second wave as people have been talking about."

Health authorities in Canada now recommend everyone wear a non-medical mask when physical distancing — or staying two metres away from others — isn't possible. The City of Ottawa is currently collecting donations of non-medical or fabric masks to hand out to vulnerable people.

Hand washing and sanitizing, along with keeping hands away from faces, remains crucial, especially as more park amenities are open for public use, the city says.

Etches added that while many stores are now able to open to customers, if businesses are able to continue online-only sales, that will continue to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Mapping out cases by ward

On Wednesday OPH released its map of COVID-19 cases in Ottawa by ward. 

Eches was quick to warn the map has significant limitations. It's main usefulness is showing that COVID-19 is spreading throughout every corner of the city, she said.

"It just isn't that great data because it's only based on the tests that have been done, it's only based on where people live [and] it doesn't tell us about where they were exposed," she said.

(Ottawa Public Health)

"But people want to know what information we have about the geography and so we're sharing it."

Etches said the map will be updated every two weeks with the latest positive test data.

The map may become more useful with time as more people get tested, she said. Until now, mainly health-care workers and the very ill (who tend to be older) got tested.

Last week, Ottawa began testing anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 which may, over time, make the ward map more representative, she said.

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