Raw data on the cumulative number of deaths at a country level generally indicate a spatially variable distribution of the incidence of COVID-19 disease. An important issue is to determine whether this spatial pattern is a consequence of environmental heterogeneities, such as the climatic conditions, during the course of the outbreak. Another fundamental issue is to understand the spatial spreading of COVID-19. To address these questions, we consider four candidate epidemiological models with varying complexity in terms of initial conditions, contact rates and non-local transmissions, and we fit them to French mortality data with a mixed probabilistic-ODE approach. Using standard statistical criteria, we select the model with non-local transmission corresponding to a diffusion on the graph of counties that depends on the geographic proximity, with time-dependent contact rate and spatially constant parameters. This original spatially parsimonious model suggests that in a geographically middle size centralized country such as France, once the epidemic is established, the effect of global processes such as restriction policies, sanitary measures and social distancing overwhelms the effect of local factors. Additionally, this modeling approach reveals the latent epidemiological dynamics including the local level of immunity, and allows us to evaluate the role of non-local interactions on the future spread of the disease. In view of its theoretical and numerical simplicity and its ability to accurately track the COVID-19 epidemic curves, the framework we develop here, in particular the non-local model and the associated estimation procedure, is of general interest in studying spatial dynamics of epidemics.
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