Local News

RDU prepares for busy travel weekend among surging COVID numbers

Posted December 31, 2020 5:05 p.m. EST
Updated January 1, 2021 10:48 a.m. EST

— Even with coronavirus numbers surging across the state, North Carolinians aren't doing so well at limiting travel.

In fact, they're failing.

This weekend, another wave of people who traveled for the holidays will be coming home.

Raleigh-Durham International Airport is expecting this weekend the be one of the busiest travel times of the pandemic. As many people prepare to fly back to the Triangle Sunday, it’s impact on virus cases on the state could spell disaster.

Friday marks one week since Christmas, and health experts say it could take up to two weeks before the state begins to see how traveling plays in the equation.

RDU’s forecast for New Year’s week, Dec. 28 through Jan. 3, predicts 102,000 total passengers traveling through the airport. That’s a 59% drop from New Year’s week in 2019, yet still considered to be one of its busiest times throughout the raging pandemic.

According to a social distancing scorecard created by Unacast, the average person in the state is currently reducing their travel by less than 25 percent.

The company is using cellphone location data – comparing it from before the pandemic to now. Through that information, the company is tracking movement patterns. It is able to determine the difference in one's average mobility based on distance traveled. Cellphones ping off of service towers as we move so the researchers can use that information to figure out where we are going and what we're doing, like if we're running essential errands.

Unacast started tracking this back in March because in the beginning of the pandemic most people were working from home, avoiding non essential travel. The company even stated in their early methodology that the metric it chose to look at correlates well with the number of confirmed cases: the more cases are confirmed, the greater decrease in the average distance traveled on the county level.

That was true in Wake County in the beginning. But now, there's only a 25 to 40 percent change in average mobility in the county despite hundreds of new cases here daily. The county is earning a D in reduction of average travel and an F overall. Things aren't much better for all counties in our region.

What we're doing here isn't much different than the rest of the country though. As a whole, the U.S. has received a D- overall with mobility changes at 25 to 40 percent.

"This is not where we needed to be," said Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease specialist at UNC Health. "This is not where we want it to be. This is not where we had to be. This is a failure on many levels."

Researchers have noted that sustained change in behavior is hard so what we're seeing - people no longer altering their movements - could be a result of COVID burnout. But, as the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation model shows, precautions like masking and social distancing are effective.

It remains to be seen if recent holiday travel will result in increased coronavirus cases in the state.

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