Colorado Health Institute Develops Critical Tool to Enhance Data-Driven Decisions at the State and Local Level

As a non-partisan research organization, the Colorado Health Institute (CHI) staff spend a lot of time listening. In early March, they began to hear more and more about the Colorado’s data needs related to COVID-19.

Two important things stood out. First, since state agencies reported most data at the county level, public health leaders weren’t able to effectively pinpoint high-risk neighborhoods and populations. Second, the results were not accurately reflecting confirmed cases and deaths because communities that tested more residents were naturally showing higher incidences of infection. CHI staff quickly realized that gaining a clearer idea of what is actually happening would enable agencies to develop more proactive, tailored responses that could save more lives.

As the rest of the United States struggled to understand what social distancing meant, CHI did what they do best: analyzed the growing data from other countries. They researched transmission rate estimates coming in from China and Italy and considered how it might impact community spread in Colorado. “Since the data came from diverse sources within countries that had vastly different tracking and testing methods, it became a challenge to translate their work, not only to the United States, but to Colorado specifically,” Emily Johnson, Director of Policy Analysis at CHI said.

With four people working on this project, CHI’s vision soon became clear, leading to the development of the Social Distancing Index. This tool, the first of its kind in the country, investigates differences in residents’ ability to keep space between themselves and others outside their house, in effect shielding them from COVID-19 infections. The Index rates every census tract in the state for social distancing obstacles where residents work, live and play based on three measures: overcrowded housing (percentage of residents living in homes with more than one person per room), population density (residents per square mile) and essential jobs (percentage of residents working in any of the 10 job categories).

      • Census tracts received a score on a scale of 1 to 10 based on its comparison to all other tracts in Colorado with higher number denoting more obstacles
      • The overall tract index score equals an average of its scores on the 3 measures.
      • Staff secured the data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Five-Year American Community Survey Estimates.

The results proved both surprising and expected. Many neighborhoods with a high proportion of low-income families and people of color appear to have the most significant social distancing challenges. “The Social Distancing Index shows which Coloradans have a built-in disadvantage in preventing the spread of COVID-19,” Johnson said. “Our homes, neighborhoods, and jobs are not easily changed, and people who can’t maintain social distancing in those three settings are at a higher risk of infection.” The bottom line: decades of discriminatory social and economic policies have created conditions such as crowded housing and low-wage work in close quarters—conditions that make it easier for viruses to spread.

Despite having wide-open spaces in rural communities, certain areas also have a harder time with social distancing, which further evidence that systematic inequities are having real and immediate health consequences during the pandemic. For example, a meatpacking plant in Greeley, which mostly employs immigrants, has seen large outbreaks. The most recent reporting indicates 245 workers in Greeley have contracted COVID-19. Six have died.

CHI’s ability to create and deploy the Social Distancing Index is more than being in the right place at the right time. It reflects this institute’s almost 20-year history as a trusted partner among statewide leaders in health care, human services, behavioral health, environment, philanthropy, education, business and government agencies working to improve population health. As a nonprofit that supports both public and private entities, CHI has been in frequent communication with the Colorado Governor Jared Polis’ Office and state legislators, providing real-time data to inform crucial decisions about sheltering in place and opening up the economy. As CHI staff participated in early calls about how to address upcoming COVID-19 issues, Michele Lueck, CHI’s forward-looking President/CEO, quickly decided to redirect their resources to address the pandemic through informed decision-making.

Colorado has moved into Stage 2 – Safer at Home of the state’s reopening plan. While much remains unknown about the impact of re-opening, Johnson feels confident that CHI’s Social Distancing Index will help state and local leaders prepare for the next stage and develop plans to contain COVID-19 in Colorado.


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