What pandemic? Many people kept traveling normally despite feeling COVID-19 symptoms

FAIRFAX, Va. — In sports, athletes often jokingly tell teammates to “walk it off” after they suffer a minor injury. Unfortunately, a new study finds that’s just what many people are also doing when it comes to COVID-19. Researchers at George Mason University say they uncovered no real change in daily activity, travel, and contact with others during the pandemic — even when someone was experiencing a potential coronavirus symptom.

A team from the College of Health and Human Services tracked movement habits and health data among 175 campus volunteers. Researchers say this is the first report during COVID to trace movement patterns among people with possible symptoms of infection. Their results show, even while suffering from common warning signs of coronavirus, people did little to limit their daily movements.

“We could not detect any significant change of movement when people should self-quarantine. On the other hand some people almost did not leave home since the beginning of the pandemic, while others move freely around,” says Dr. Janusz Wojtusiak in a university release.

Headache now, pandemic later?

Wojtusiak and the team find the most common ailment volunteers continued to travel normally with was a headache. In fact, results show headaches were always listed as a symptom even if participants had other issues as well. Other possible COVID symptoms participants experienced included coughs and sore throats.

Despite this, participants traveled an average of 139 miles each week during the study. This window during the pandemic includes periods when Virginia was under a stay-at-home order and after the mandate was lifted. The average volunteer also visited just under six different locations each week during this time.

Researchers say movement patterns did vary among the participants. Some would only go out to make essential trips while others were more active. Overall, however, even when the group reported having COVID symptoms or contact with a possible COVID-positive person, volunteers did not change their routine to meet public health guidelines.

Does more movement really lead to more COVID cases?

Study authors used the Mason COVID HealthCheck system to record each volunteer’s possible symptoms. GPS and WiFi data helped the team keep tabs on where the participants moved throughout the pandemic. Researchers say this allowed them to model and predict movements while also monitoring for warning signs of COVID-19.

“By tracking individual movements and symptoms in our study, our findings could help inform effective public health interventions to reduce COVID-19 infections,” Wojtusiak explains.

Although some volunteers may have had potential coronavirus symptoms, none actually reported suffering a COVID-19 infection. Therefore, the team could not positively link infection rates to movement in this report. The team notes future studies will include data from the winter of 2020, when health officials noted another virus surge in many areas.

The study appears in the Journal of Healthcare Informatics Research.