Vanderbilt report: Tennesseans must suppress COVID-19 to avoid further economic damage

In this April 21, 2020 photo, Robin Adkins, a nurse and senior director of Clinical Engagement at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, removes masks used during the COVID-19 pandemic after they were sanitized with ultraviolet light at the medical center in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

No industry in Tennessee has escaped the effects of COVID-19, and while mobility is returning for some types of businesses, others remain severely hit by the global pandemic, according to a new report released Friday.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center analyzed privacy-protected mobility data from smartphone devices to better understand the pandemic's impact on the state's economy and found that Tennesseans dramatically reduced travel outside of their neighborhoods just after the first cases of COVID-19 in the state were reported in early March.

Since stay-at-home orders were lifted in early May, mobility among certain industries in areas of the state that have been least affected by the coronavirus have returned to mobility levels consistent with the same period in 2019.

The hardest hit businesses and industries where mobility remains heavily suppressed across the state include religious organizations, child care services and museums, historical sites or other similar institutions.

Physicians offices, automobile dealers, gas stations, retailers, amusement and recreation, traveler accommodation and restaurants were heavily affected initially, but mobility to these places has moderately returned since stay-home orders were lifted.

Mobility specific to those industries remains well below where it was before COVID-19 reached Tennessee, the researchers found.

Industries that fared the best include building material and supplies dealers, grocery stores and general merchandise stores.

"What many people want to understand is how the scope and profile of economic activity has changed with the coronavirus, and if this activity has any relationship with continued transmission of the virus," John Graves, associate professor of health policy and director of the Center for Health Economic Modeling at Vanderbilt, said in a news release. "These are difficult questions to answer definitively, but our analysis provides the most detailed look to date on how the economic landscape continues to shift.

Even without severe restrictions on business operation, travel to restaurants remains well below levels usually seen in mid-May, and travel to churches and other religious organizations remains 50-60% lower than usual, according to the report.

Memphis and Nashville, areas with more cases and local reopening plans that are more restrictive than the state's, have lower mobility in almost every major industry compared to the rest of Tennessee.

"Our recommendation is for Tennesseans of every stripe to focus on reducing the spread of the virus," Graves said. "Our analysis underscores that as long as the virus is spreading, it only increases the risk of economic contagion the virus has brought along with it."

Friday's report is the fifth in a series of reports on COVID-19 in Tennessee produced by Vanderbilt's department of health policy.
The last report, released May 13, demonstrated that actions taken by Tennesseans, including reduced mobility, "reduced the transmission number for the virus substantially," said Melissa McPheeters, a health policy research professor at Vanderbilt.
"There is surely more work to do," McPheeters wrote in an email. "We need to keep a close eye on it, but we did make good strides, and our health system was not overwhelmed in the way we were afraid it would be earlier in the spring."

Contact Elizabeth Fite at [email protected]