The Social Distancing Index scores Colorado census tracts on population density, crowded housing, and type of jobs, and it can be used to target public health assistance during the COVID-19 crisis.
The biggest potential obstacles to social distancing are found in neighborhoods around the edges of Denver County and in agricultural areas in northeastern Colorado.
The index demonstrates that inequitable social factors — such as crowded housing and work situations — can hamper the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Crowded housing, dense populations, and employment demands make it difficult for many Coloradans to maintain social distancing to guard against COVID-19 infections.
Coronaviruses spread when people are in close contact, so the more people can stay apart, the better chance of halting the outbreak and preventing a resurgence. Social distancing measures — such as avoiding crowds and maintaining a six-foot distance from others — will remain necessary even after stay-at-home orders are lifted.
But social distancing is harder to practice in some neighborhoods and towns than others — particularly places where more people of color live and incomes are lower than average. Systemic discrimination has created the conditions for these communities, such as crowded housing and low-wage, hands-on work, that make it easier for viruses to spread.
Certain rural areas also have a harder time with social distancing. Despite the wide-open spaces on the Eastern Plains, Yuma County and parts of Weld County have crowded living quarters and a high concentration of jobs that require workers to be physically present.
The Colorado Health Institute (CHI) built a Social Distancing Index to pinpoint areas of the state where residents are likely to have a harder time following public health advice to avoid interacting with others. This index can be useful as state and local leaders prepare for the next phase of their campaign against COVID-19. For example, neighborhoods with high scores on the index could be first in line to receive internet-connected thermometers or more coronavirus tests to provide an early warning of new outbreaks.
Using the Index
CHI’s Social Distancing Index rates every census tract in the state for obstacles to social distancing in our homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces. It is based on three measures:
- Homes: Overcrowded housing (percentage of residents living in homes with more than one person per room)
- Neighborhoods: Population density (residents per square mile)
- Workplaces: Essential jobs (percentage of residents who work in one of 10 job categories. See box on the right side of the page.)
Each census tract received a score on a scale of 1 to 10 based on its comparison to all other tracts in Colorado. Higher numbers denote greater population densities, crowding, and proportions of essential jobs. The overall index score for a tract is an average of its scores on the three measures.
Data for all three measures are from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Five-Year American Community Survey Estimates.
Use the interactive map below to look at census tracts for their overall score or for the three components of the index. The map also includes three more layers for context: percentage of the population earning less than two times the federal poverty level (about $25,000 for a single person), percentage of the population over age 65 (a high-risk group for COVID-19), and the percentage of people of color in the population. These measures were not included in the index scores.
For this index, workers in the following 10 industries were deemed to have essential jobs:
- Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, mining
- Construction (including electricians, mechanics, and plumbers)
- Wholesale trade
- Retail trade
- Transportation, warehousing, and utilities
- Waste management
- Education, health care and social assistance
- Food services
- Other services, including auto repair, child care, banks, and laundries
A closer look at individual census tracts reveals some patterns — some expected and some not.
Dense Populations Aren’t Necessarily Crowded
Central Denver is the most densely populated area of the state, but residents there aren’t living in crowded conditions. Instead, the most crowded homes are in the neighborhoods around the edge of Denver County — Westwood in southwest Denver and Montbello in the northeast, the Adams County suburbs along Interstate 25 and west of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge, and northwest Aurora near the border with Denver. These neighborhoods have some of the lowest incomes in the metro area.
Rural Colorado has pockets of crowded housing, too, especially along the Interstate 70 ski corridor and in the San Luis Valley just outside the city of Alamosa. Crowded areas in both rural and urban Colorado tend to have a higher proportion of people of color — a testament to current and historic discriminatory policies that have prevented people of color from owning homes and building generational wealth.
Rural Jobs are Essential Jobs
In general, rural communities have a higher percentage of workers deemed essential than the Front Range’s cities and suburbs. Two essential sectors dominate rural employment — agriculture and education/health care/social services, according to the census data used for the index.
Agricultural workers help maintain the food supply for Colorado and the country as a whole. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) reported that as of April 15, 120 employees at two meat packing plants had tested positive for COVID-19, and five had died.
The Outbreak Shows Why Social Inequities Matter
The Social Distancing Index shows which Coloradans have a built-in disadvantage in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Our homes, neighborhoods, and jobs are not easily changed, and people who can’t maintain social distancing in those three settings are at a higher risk of infection. More infections elevate the risk for everyone and prolong the duration that social distancing practices will be needed.
Cell phone data analyzed by Tri-County Health Department broadly confirm the findings of the index. The data show that cell phones — and thus their owners — are moving around less since COVID-19 showed up in Colorado. But the most cell phone movement in the metro area is in Adams County, which has several census tracts with high scores on CHI’s Social Distancing Index.
The index shows why certain counties might have more residents who are moving around during stay-at-home orders. It’s not because they want to go out — it’s because they have no choice.
The Social Distancing Index serves as a simple tool to spot the areas where people are least able to take effective actions against the spread of COVID-19. It provides one way to target scarce resources that will be essential to beat back COVID-19 and keep it in check.
The index also demonstrates how social inequities in many neighborhoods can hinder public health efforts. Public health professionals and social justice advocates have warned that a widening gap between the rich and poor will harm the health of the entire society.
The pandemic is now driving that lesson home.
Explore and Share
CHI encourages you to explore the map on your own and pick out areas of concern. Our analysts are available to anyone involved in COVID-19 response to help interpret the maps and data.