Toronto Public Health Turns To Cell Phone Data To Determine Why Some Neighborhoods Are Disproportionately Affected By COVID-19


Toronto Public Health is currently examining anonymous cell phone data as part of a larger effort to understand why the transmission of COVID-19 appears to vary so dramatically from neighborhood to neighborhood.

In a report to be reviewed by the Board of Health next week, Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa, says that “retrospective summaries” of cell phone data obtained by his office have shown that people living in the hard-hit northwest corner of town “continued to move at about the same rate throughout the pandemic”, while people living in richer areas with lower cases “were more likely to stay at home ”.

She said one explanation for the difference could be that people in low-income communities like the Northwest are more likely to serve as “essential workers” who don’t have the option of working from home.

This, in turn, puts them at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, she said.

In fact, the infection rate in the city’s worst-affected neighborhood, West Humber-Clairville, is almost 10 times that of the Beaches, which has the lowest number of cases per 100,000 people in Toronto (204).

In a statement provided to, Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vinita Dubey said the cell phone data was still being reviewed by the Toronto Public Health Department and staff did not have still had the opportunity to look for movement patterns in other neighborhoods, where there is also increased transmission.

For this reason, she said the data will not be made public at this time.

“Data on mobility patterns is just one set of data that informs TPH’s response to COVID-19, including strategies to help vulnerable communities,” she said. “It also provides additional information on the risks of exposure and the activities of communities that have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.”

Toronto Public Health has previously said COVID-19 is having a disproportionate effect on low-income residents. To date, 26% of confirmed cases have been in people earning less than $ 30,000 per year, while this group made up only 14% of the population. Meanwhile, only 7% of cases involved people earning more than $ 150,000 a year, while this group made up 21% of the population.

In his statement, Dubey noted that Toronto Public Health “is actively working with other divisions of the city and partner organizations to reduce inequalities in how COVID-19 infection affects the population,” the review of cell phone data is only one aspect of this work.


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