Adrian Boteanu / Sun File Photo

Rural upstate New York remains at risk for a COVID-19 outbreak that could overwhelm regional health care systems.

April 20, 2020

Cornell Demographers Create COVID-19 New York Mapping Tool

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Research on COVID-19 may seem limited to strictly biology, but some Cornell demographers have shown that they can also contribute.

To study how vulnerable New York counties are to COVID-19 outbreaks, demographers from the Cornell Population Center and the Cornell Program on Applied Demographics created an interactive mapping tool.

The mapping application was designed to help officials analyze underlying risk factors that would worsen the spread of COVID-19 if it were to hit a certain county. The map also provides updated data on COVID-19 testing, the number of positive cases and deaths by county. County officials are now using the tool to help them respond to the unfolding pandemic, according to a University press release.

This tool ranks each of New York’s 62 counties in terms of how susceptible they are to a localized outbreak, based on the risk factors of demographics and health. Counties are assigned index numbers, which indicates the level of risk in the county, compared to the average risk level.

To measure demographic vulnerability, the risk factors considered were the percentage of the population 80 years of age or above, the percentage of people living in group quarters facilities, households that span three generations and the percent of the population with a disability.

Health risks known to complicate COVID-19 were evaluated to measure health vulnerability — such as the percent of a county’s adult population that has asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes or high blood pressure, as well as the adult obesity and smoking rates.

Index numbers were calculated using data on how prevalent certain risk factors are in a county’s population.

Tompkins County ranks in the bottom-quartile on both measures, even though some surrounding counties had higher index numbers.

Rural upstate New York, particularly in the Adirondack and Chautauqua-Allegheny regions, is still likely to be the most susceptible to a COVID-19 outbreak due to the prevalence of these risk factors. At peak transmission, an outbreak could overwhelm healthcare systems in the region.

Based on demographics and health, Hamilton and Montgomery county — largely rural areas — are the most vulnerable to an outbreak.

However, several counties that make up the New York City metropolitan area — including New York and Westchester counties — also rank in the bottom-quartile on both measures, even though the outbreak has been largely concentrated there.

The residential and social density of the counties surrounding the metropolitan area contributed to its surge in cases, said Matt Hall, director of the CPC. The mapping tool’s developers did not factor in these aspects when they calculated the vulnerability indexes.

Most of Tompkins County’s under-80 population has few pre-existing health conditions, with a low proportion living below the poverty line — these characteristics gave the county a low index number.

While the health vulnerability and demographic vulnerability scores do not necessarily correlate, some counties do have high index numbers for both measures.

According to Hall, the mapping tool does not predict where future outbreaks might occur.

“This is a very early version of this project,” Hall said. “We’d like to incorporate information on hospital capacities and social and residential density.”

Warren Brown, director of the PAD, said the mapping tool acts as a warning to places that have not yet experienced outbreaks.

“It’s not as if you’re out of the woods and you’re safe,” Brown said. “If the disease spreads there, then it could be more devastating than it has been even downstate.”