We got an F

Houston area gets failing score on social distancing, according to report

Houstonians apparently aren't so good at the whole social distancing thing, according to data from a new report. Photo by Getty Images

According to a study that evaluated social distancing execution in counties, the Houston area didn't do so well and earned failing scores all around.

A widely used social distancing scoreboard from Unacast, a provider of location data and analytics, shows only one county in the Houston area — Austin County — received a grade above an F for social distancing as of May 20. But Austin County doesn't have much to brag about, since its social-distancing score is a D-. The Houston area's eight other counties, including Harris, flunked.

Relying on a huge storehouse of cellphone data, the Unacast scoreboard measures social distancing activity on a daily basis in every state and county compared with activity before the coronavirus outbreak. The scorecard assigns a letter grade of A through F based on current social-distancing behavior.

Each grade takes into account three factors:

  • Percentage change in average distance traveled compared with the pre-coronavirus period
  • Percentage change in visits to nonessential places compared with the pre-coronavirus period
  • Decrease in person-to-person encounters compared with the national pre-coronavirus average

So, how did Harris County, for instance, fare in those three categories? On May 20, its grade in each category was an F. Why? Because it had less than a 25 percent reduction in average mobility (based on distance traveled), less than a 55 percent reduction in nonessential visits, and less than a 40 percent decrease in "encounters density" compared with the national average.

The scoreboard indicates Harris County's grades have bounced around. On April 4, for example, Harris County received an A in the nonessential-visit category for reducing those visits by at least 70 percent.

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said in an interview published May 20 that he's worried the easing of social distancing in Houston will lead to a spike in coronavirus cases.

"I think here in Houston we're underachieving in a lot of aspects in public health, and it's no fault of the … public health leaders," Hotez said.

In Texas, the Houston area isn't alone in its apparent failure, at least recently, to adhere to social-distancing guidelines.

On May 20, not a single county in the Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Antonio metro areas earned higher than a D on the Unacast report card.

All five counties in the Austin area got F's, as did all 13 counties in Dallas-Fort Worth, according to the scoreboard.

But as with Harris County, other metro areas' scores in individual categories have fluctuated over time. Here are a few examples:

  • On April 4, Travis and Dallas counties earned an A for at least a 70 percent reduction in nonessential visits.
  • On April 11, Tarrant County received a B for a 55 percent to 70 percent drop in average mobility.

In the San Antonio area, Bandera County earned the highest grade (D) of any county in the state's four major metros. Atascosa and Medina counties eked out grades of D-, while the remainder of the area's counties wound up in the F column.

In line with trends for its major-county counterparts, Bexar County's social distancing scores in individual categories have gone up and down. On April 11, for example, Bexar County earned a B for a 55 percent to 70 percent decline in average mobility.

The scores for the state's major metros appear to reflect the recent loosening of stay-at-home restrictions across Texas. But health experts still recommend sticking with social-distancing measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, Unacast points out that the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cite social distancing as the "most effective way" to combat coronavirus infections.

Unacast says it launched the social-distancing scoreboard in March to enable organizations to measure and grasp the efficiency of local social-distancing efforts.

"Data can be one of society's most powerful weapons in this public health war," Thomas Walle, co-founder and CEO of Unacast, says in an April 16 release.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Building Houston

 
 

Rice has risen to the top again. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University continues to rise in national surveys. The latest: U.S. News & World Report's 2021 Best Colleges, released September 14, anoints Rice as the best university in Texas. The prestigious Houston school — dubbed the "Ivy League of the South" — ranks No. 16 among national universities, up one spot from last year.

This is in step with last year's U.S. News & World Report's Best Colleges list, which also named Rice the best university in Texas.

The trusted report compared more than 1,400 undergraduate institutions across 17 measures of "academic quality" this year. Acknowledging the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic on students and schools, the publication made several updates to its methodology, notes a release.

For 2021, U.S. News added two new metrics to measure student debt. It also increased the weight of the outcome category, which measures graduation rates, retention rates, and social mobility, and reduced the weights for standardized test scores, high school class standing, and alumni giving. And, for the very first time, the report ranks test-blind schools (those that don't require an SAT or ACT score for admission).

"The pandemic has affected students across the country, canceling commencement ceremonies and switching classes from in person to remote," said Kim Castro, editor and chief content officer, in a release. "Whether students have slightly altered their college plans or changed them entirely, it remains our mission to continue providing students and their families with the tools they need to help find the right school for them."

Now, on to the rankings. Here's how Rice scores in the prestigious report:

  • No. 6 in Best Undergraduate Teaching
  • No. 8 in Best Value Schools
  • No. 18 in Most Innovative Schools (tie)
  • No. 224 in Top Performers on Social Mobility (tie)
  • No. 19 in Best Undergraduate Engineering Programs (tie)

For 2021, the University of Texas at Austin ranks No. 42 nationally, up a significant six spots from 2020. It's also the school's highest ranking on the report since 1985, touts a news release from the university. Among the country's public universities, UT Austin climbed four spots from the previous year, landing at No. 13.

As for Texas' other top schools, Southern Methodist University and Texas A&M University are tied at No. 66 nationwide, while Baylor University and Texas Christian University rank No. 76 and No. 80, respectively.

The lofty U.S. News & World Report ranking is just the latest in accolades for the Owls. Rice was recently named the seventh best college in the U.S. and the best college in Texas by Niche.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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