What’s behind NC’s low social distancing grade?

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Tech companies that evaluate our social distancing habits based on our cellphone data continue to grade North Carolina and the entire Southeast harshly.

One of them — Unacast — gave the state an F on Tuesday, one of 17 states to receive failing grades. Only one state — Vermont — received a grade as high as a C.

“We are not in control in any part of the country,” said Dr. Mark McClellan, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration who now is a health policy expert at Duke University.

Those grades are determined by how people’s level of activity compares to what it was before the pandemic in some key measures: How much people are traveling and at what distances, and how much they’ve cut visits to what the company considers non-essential locations like department stores and some types of restaurants.

But a third measure reveals the main difference between North Carolina and the state the company rates as the best at social distancing: Encounter density.

Put simply, it’s a measure of how many people are in the same place at the same time, and Unacast says Vermonters received an A in that category for staying farther apart for longer periods of time, while North Carolinians were issued an F.

Vermont has some of the strictest social distancing guidelines in the country, with Gov. Phil Scott temporarily banning social gatherings with people from other households.

That’s an issue worth monitoring closely with the holiday season approaching and colder temperatures likely leading more people to stay indoors and avoid outdoor settings. 

Health leaders at all levels of the government have said small social gatherings have contributed to the current surge of cases, with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services recording four days with at least 3,000 new cases in the past week. There were 3,288 new cases reported Tuesday, the second-highest single-day total of the pandemic.

“There’s these temptations and possibilities of getting together, and some people have fallen into that a bit,” said Brian Southwell, a human behavior expert at RTI International. “And so I think that’s going to be a challenge for us.”

But North Carolina has plenty of company in the region: Every state south of the Mason-Dixon Line except for two — Virginia and West Virginia — was issued an F.

North Carolina received Fs in all three of the categories that comprise its overall score — and so did neighboring states South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

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