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People in western Washington traveling shorter distances for COVID-19 vaccines

People are driving a lot less than we were a month ago because we can find COVID-19 vaccines closer to home.

KIRKLAND, Wash. — What can monitoring traffic tell us about COVID-19 vaccine distribution? An engineer at Kirkland-based INRIX went to find out, and what he learned is that we’re driving a lot less than we were a month ago because we can find shots closer to home.

“I heard of people going up to Arlington, all the way to Yakima, to get vaccines. And I also heard of a ton of open appointments,” said Bob Pishue, an engineer at INRIX who wanted to see if traffic data could tell him how far people were willing to travel to get a shot.

On April 10, people were driving an average of 45 miles to go to the mass vaccination site at Yakima’s Sun Dome for an injection, according to company data. By May, that had dropped to around 25 miles. 

Credit: INRIX

Pishue said as more vaccines become available locally, people are driving shorter distances to get them, which he considers a good thing.

Though the technology has no idea who you are - it can’t read your license plate or tell what car you’re driving - the scale of movement out of zip code areas to the Sun Dome was telling.

“What that’s telling us is an approximate kind of zone," said Pishue. "Where people are coming from, that we can see some heading up to Yakima from Boise, we can see them coming up from Portland.”

Or the Seattle metro area. But he said there is no way to know whether those vehicles were all people needing to get a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, or a truck with a load of protective gear. But the cars would outnumber the trucks in this context.

Credit: INRIX

It’s the same technology that tells his company what’s happening on the roads. It’s that technology that also tells us in our smartphones and GPS systems where the worst traffic is - GPS data fed from thousands of cars anonymously into computers, painting a picture of traffic volumes, speeds, and more.

“And what we expect to see is vaccines actually start to go to where people are, as opposed to people going to where the vaccines are,” said Pichue.

He also looked at data going to the mass vaccination site at the Arlington Airport in Snohomish County and Lumen Field in Seattle, where about one-third of the people driving to Lumen Field were traveling more than 20 miles, compared to now where that number has dropped substantially.

Pichue suspects public health officials were using the same technique to look at where cars might be leaving a super spreader event such as spring break in Miami Beach, and where those cars came from, and where they could be heading loaded with the virus.

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