Social distancing and mask wearing is extremely common in the United States. But younger people, white people, men, and those with lower incomes are less likely than their counterparts to engage in measures that mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus known as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), according to new research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
“In a situation like the current pandemic, where you have no vaccine and the virus is spreading quickly, the health behaviors of the public become your greatest asset in both controlling the spread of COVID-19 and protecting the public’s health,” said study author Fares Qeadan, an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Utah.
“The starting point for using this asset effectively is in knowing who is undertaking what protective health behaviors and how those behaviors intersect with perceptions of COVID-19 as a threat or not a threat.”
For their study, the researchers examined data from 25,269 American adults who participated in the COVID Impact Survey, a weekly survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The data was collected in April, May, and June of 2020.
“Our study found that the median number of protective measures taken by Americans is 9 (+-2) out of a list of 19 measures,” Qeadan told PsyPost, indicating a moderate level of compliance with measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
Nearly 95% of participants reported washing or sanitizing their hands, 90.11% reported staying six feet away from others, and 86.18% reported wearing a mask or face covering. About 40% of the participants reported working from home.
The researchers also found that demographic and socioeconomic variables were associated with differing rates of protective COVID-19 measures. “Specifically, the study reveals that individuals with higher incomes, insurance, higher education levels, large household size, age 60+, females, minorities, those who have asthma, have hypertension, are overweight or obese, and those who suffer from mental health issues during the pandemic were significantly more likely to report taking precautionary protective measures relative to their counterparts,” Qeadan told PsyPost.
“Further, this study shows that individuals with a known relationship to COVID-19 (positive for COVID-19, knowing an individual with COVID-19, or knowing someone who had died from COVID-19) are strongly engaged with the protective health measures of washing hands, avoiding public places, and canceling social engagements.”
“However, those with a COVID-19 diagnosis had stronger emphasis on self-isolation (cancelling social events, avoiding large crowds, staying home, and stockpiling food and water), whereas those living with someone with COVID-19 or having a close friend or family member dying from COVID-19 had stronger emphasis on personal protective health measures (washing/sanitizing hands, wearing a face mask, and six-feet distancing),” Qeadan explained.
“The takeaway message is to increase the number of protective measures one takes to fight this pandemic. I hope that people are seeking out evidence-based information during this pandemic and taking it seriously. Anyone who reads about our research can probably see themselves and people they know in the health behaviors we studied.”
“Our article, as well as others, provides readers an opportunity to reflect on if they are being safe enough and who they know that might need some encouragement in being a little safer. Hopefully, we have helped illuminate the relationships between health behaviors, some sociodemographic factors, and people’s lived experience with the virus,” Qeadan said.
Like all research, the study includes some limitations.
“Follow-up studies would be helpful in understanding how behaviors and perceptions are changing over time; as numbers fall and rise are behaviors and perceptions changing accordingly or do people get fatigued over time and start to be less adherent to these protective measures?” Qeadan said.
“There is still work to do, but our data can be useful in targeting certain people who aren’t taking the virus as seriously as they should and it provides insight into how public information might be better targeted in future pandemics. It would be essential to conduct larger population-based studies that include areas where individuals are not able to access the internet.”
The study, “What Protective Health Measures Are Americans Taking in Response to COVID-19? Results from the COVID Impact Survey“, was authored by Fares Qeadan, Nana Akofua Mensah, Benjamin Tingey, Rona Bern, Tracy Rees, Sharon Talboys, Tejinder Pal Singh, Steven Lacey, and Kimberley Shoaf.