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Health Departments Lean on GIS Mapping to Track COVID-19

To track the spread of COVID-19 and its variants, health departments in counties across at least three states have turned to GIS mapping to monitor current and past cases as well as vaccine distribution.

Small vials of a COVID-19 vaccine.
As the delta variant continues to spread throughout the country, local health departments are turning to geographic information system mapping to track the spread of COVID-19 and manage the distribution of vaccines.

Three counties, including Suffolk County, N.Y.; Milwaukee County, Wisc.; and Clackamas County, Ore., shared their experience working with GIS company Esri after building interactive maps and dashboards to display local data.

According to Esri’s chief medical officer, Dr. Este Geraghty, users can utilize the company’s mapping software to pinpoint locations to address public health or health-care challenges.

More specifically, users can operate the software to map confirmed and active COVID-19 cases, deaths and recoveries, create time-enabled maps to show how infections have spread over time and identify vulnerable populations, including the elderly or immunocompromised.

The software can also show available facilities, medical resources and equipment, create interactive web maps to communicate individual county information and access Census tract-level information to identify communities near vaccination sites.

“You can calculate drive time distance from each of the vaccine venues from different aggregated Census tracts and see where there are pockets of no vaccine access,” she said.

From there, you can isolate these areas through interactive web maps to see what nearby vaccine providers or Walgreens could serve these areas, Geraghty added.

So, how did each county utilize this tech?

In Suffolk County, IT personnel and health-care professionals utilized the software’s interactive maps and dashboards to identify vulnerable minority communities impacted by language barriers.

For example, Harsha Rajashekharaiah, a senior project coordinator for COVID-19 efforts at Vital Strategies, said, “age eligibility is decided at the CDC level. But, let’s say there were people from the Brentwood neighborhood where we know there’s a big African American population or Latino population that fits into that age group, we’d prioritize those ZIP codes for appointments.”

These areas were prioritized due to low vaccination rates.

“In Suffolk County, they mapped the vaccine rate by Census tract and found low vaccine rates,” Frank Winters, the geographic information officer for the Office of Information Technology Services, said.

According to Winters, these low numbers were impacted by people with language barriers.

As a result, he said, “they added Spanish and Creole language assistance services for call lines to get the information out there.”

Other efforts within the county included setting up community vaccination sites.

“Based on geospatial analysis, county leadership was able to direct resources to run community pop-up pods to improve vaccination coverage,” Rajashekharaiah said.

Now, however, the county is preparing to use these tools to administer booster shots.

“We’re going to go back with the same sort of exercise,” Rajashekharaiah added. “I think it’s going to mirror what happened in the first introduction of the vaccine but probably at a quicker pace. Once that eligibility opens up, I think these maps can be used again.”

As for Milwaukee County, Wis., medical professionals and county officials used the mapping software to address racial inequality and underserved communities.

Last year the state’s economy ranked last in racial equality in the country, according to a WalletHub study of wealth and employment gaps between Black and white residents.

Dr. Ben Weston, director of medical services for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, said this racial inequality stretches into health care as well.

“Knowing there is racial inequality, we’ve worked to make sure that vaccination sites are available and easy to access for underserved populations,” Weston said.

“The other thing we’ve done more directly is implementing our vaccine ambassador program,” he added.

The program consists of volunteers that are paid, trained and educated on the evidence of the vaccine and then go door to door to residents’ homes in underserved communities to ask if they’ve received the vaccine and answer any questions they might have.

“Surprisingly, there’s not a lot of people that know you can walk into a Walgreens and get a vaccine,” Weston said. “Some of the concerns are that you need to make an appointment or it’s going to be expensive or that you need to have insurance.”

Because of this, he said, “we’ve really been focusing on overcoming those myths by providing more information.”

Lastly, in Clackamas County, Ore., they have used geographic information system mapping to facilitate mobile vaccines for people with mobility issues, senior citizens, young adults with autism and other individuals who’d have a hard time going in person to receive a vaccine.

“It was very overwhelming in the beginning,” said Jolynn Miller, a public health nurse who runs the home visiting program for Clackamas County. “Before, I’d work seven days a week visiting patients to administer vaccines and scheduling appointments for the following week.”

During this process, Miller said, she was told about geographic information system mapping from someone at another home visiting group and how it was being used to organize COVID-19 data.

Not long after that conversation, she put in a request to use the software for the home visiting program.

“It was a big request,” Miller said. “We were trying to manage it with my good old-fashioned Excel spreadsheet, but it became too difficult to manage.”

Once the request was approved, the home visiting group partnered with Aaron Paul, a geographic information systems specialist for Clackamas County, to set up the software.

“When I was contacted, the group wanted me to set up something that would show physical routes of upcoming appointments,” Paul said. “From there, we added a data entry form called Arc GIS Survey 123 that allowed for data standardization.”

That data, he said, would automatically be added to an interactive map to show current and upcoming appointments. After that, an app that showcases all appointments, data and routes for the day on the interactive map was created.

“The workforce application takes advantage of native things within the iPhone to be able to navigate to appointments and monitor the progress of appointments,” Paul said. “It’s a one-stop shop that showcases all of the data.”

“As a nurse on the go, I don’t have time to be looking at my laptop to see where the next appointment is,” Miller said. “This app allows me to do everything from my phone.”

As for what comes next, Paul pointed to bridging gaps between political channels and outside agencies within the county.

“We now have a policy in place where the fire department can be added as users of our systems, allowing them to use our data to go out and assist with Clackamas County nurses,” he said. “We didn’t have that before.”

“This is really bridging the gap between political channels and outside agencies beyond Clackamas County staff,” Paul added. “It’s a process, but this is one of the enhancements we’ve seen over time.”
Katya Diaz is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in global strategic communications from Florida International University.