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Walworth County scores an 'F' for social distancing efforts
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Walworth County scores an 'F' for social distancing efforts

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Walworth County is getting a failing grade of “F” in an analysis of how well people are doing to limit travel and avoid crowds during the coronavirus pandemic.

The analysis by a New York-based research company called Unacast uses cellphone locations and movements to track how counties throughout the United States are doing in implementing social distance guidelines.

Walworth County officials question the report’s conclusions because, they say, the analysis fails to account for the rural nature of much of Walworth County, and the need for many residents to travel just to meet such basic needs as grocery shopping.

The analysis was published before the Wisconsin Supreme Court on May 13 threw out the state’s “Safer At Home” restrictions, making it even easier for people to move about and congregate.

The research company’s social distancing scorecard pulls together location and travel information to measure people’s movements, social interactions and non-essential visits. In giving Walworth County a grade of “F,” the analysis shows that the county has reduced average distance traveled by less than 25 percent and has decreased non-essential visits by less than 55 percent.

Of the 72 counties in Wisconsin, Walworth County places among the bottom 16 in the state. The top-ranked counties, most located in northern Wisconsin, all received grades of “B.”

No county in Wisconsin earned an “A” in the report.

Social distancing was mandated under Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer At Home” law — and is still recommended by health officials — to combat spreading the highly contagious coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

Carlo Neviscosi, deputy director of the Walworth County health and human services department, said the scorecard may not present a true picture of how travel is being reduced in the county, particularly in rural areas.

“Basically, rural residents have fewer opportunities to reduce travel,” Nevicosi said. “If they went to the store once per week, they’re still going to the store once per week. Urban residents that went shopping every day cannot shop once per week, and their grade can be higher.”

Instead of travel data, Nevicosi said, a county’s hospital capacity is more indicative of how well the area is doing to control the spread of coronavirus.

Between the county’s two largest hospitals — Aurora Lakeland Medical Center and Mercyhealth Hospital and Medical Center — only six people were hospitalized for coronavirus as of mid-May.

The cellphone research scorecard also reflects shoppers and tourists visiting Lake Geneva from Illinois. Cases of coronavirus within that population are reflected in caseloads in their home counties in Illinois.

Unacast acknowledges that social distancing evaluations can differ between rural and urban areas.

Tanya Merrisier, a representative of the company, which has world headquarters in Norway, said people in rural communities can have less opportunity to reduce social distancing than people in urban cities.

“In rural areas, where everything is more dispersed, there might be a limit on how much rural areas can actually decrease their average distance traveled,” Merrisier said.

She added: “Similarly, for the non-essential visitation metric, rural areas might have fewer venues that are considered non-essential, and thus their rate of change might be capped.”

Walworth County Sheriff Kurt Picknell said he does not view the scorecard as a complete representation of social distancing efforts in the county.

“There are a lot of other variables to take into account,” he said.

Because the scorecard uses cellphone data, Picknell said the data may be skewed by residents who carry an additional cellphone for work, and it also could exclude those who do not have cellphones at all.

The sheriff agreed with Nevicosi that monitoring statistics of those hospitalized from the coronavirus, as well as available resources in medical centers, is a better way to gauge efforts to reduce the spread of the virus.

Picknell provided firsthand experience from sheriff deputies, who reported seeing a reduction in traffic throughout the county under the now-defunct “Safer At Home” order.

Regardless of the low grade on the scorecard, he said he has seen directly how social distancing has become embedded in the daily life of people in Walworth County.

“I compliment the citizens of not only Walworth County, but the state of Wisconsin and greater to the nation,” he said, “of understanding the relative importance of establishing and sustaining social distancing.”

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