Research News

UB grad students take part in national study on mask adherence, social distancing

Various people—some wearing masks, some not—pictured in a city scape with coronavirus particles floating in the air.


Published January 7, 2022

“Our results show that we actually had the highest mask-adherence rate during the period of low disease transmission. ”
Xin (Skai) Pan, PharmD/MPH student

UB graduate students in public health were among researchers who collected and analyzed data on mask-wearing and social distancing behavior. Their findings, which were shared last month with public health directors in Western New York, revealed differences in mask adherence by sex, race and age, and show that Erie County’s mask rate was actually at its highest over the summer, when its COVID-19 transmission rate was relatively low.

The Systematic Observation of Mask Adherence and Distancing (SOMAD) study aimed to capture characteristics of mask-wearing and social distancing in an effort to monitor adherence to these public health practices, which have been uneven during COVID-19. UB was among 14 institutions participating in the study, led by Kaiser Permanente and funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Bloomberg Foundation.

Graduate students from the departments of Community Health and Health Behavior, and Epidemiology and Environmental Health, both in the School of Public Health and Health Professions, collected data from June through August, observing the masking and social distancing behavior of more than 5,000 individuals in outdoor and indoor settings in Albany, Erie and Nassau counties. Additional observations were made in China.

The team created a research plan, outlining the locations where they planned to observe, the time of day they would visit and the layout of the area. Dylan Jablonski, a student in UB’s online master of public health program, says the experience gave him lots of valuable lessons he can use for future real-world applications in observational data collection, data cleaning and analysis, and developing a research plan.

“I was fascinated with how big the study was and how many other universities were participating in the study,” adds Jablonski, who served as the data liaison for the UB team.

The group analyzed the data in August and September before preparing a summary of their findings, which was released in October.

Their findings from observations made in New York revealed that certain demographic factors may play a role in mask adherence. For example, in Erie County, Black women had the highest rates of mask adherence. Researchers also found that mask adherence among African Americans overall was about 4 times that of white people in the county.

The finding revealing higher compliance with face coverings in June stood out in particular, says Xin (Skai) Pan, a dual degree PharmD/MPH student at UB who worked on the research project as part of her master of public health field training.

“Generally speaking, we usually think that our mask-adherence rate would be the highest during the period of high COVID-19 transmission,” Pan says. “However, our results show that we actually had the highest mask-adherence rate during the period of low disease transmission.”

Mask adherence was highest in June, at 13.7%, the team reported, which primarily represented people in outdoor settings. During this time, the 7-day rolling average of COVID-19 cases was at its lowest point over the summer. Researchers suggest mask adherence may have been higher at that point because the county’s vaccination rate was lower than it had been in previous months.

The national study also looked at whether a person’s physical activity level impacted their mask adherence. The local results show that sedentary individuals had a higher rate of mask adherence.

The findings also show that people in indoor settings were more likely to wear a mask and maintain social distancing; that adults had a higher rate of mask adherence compared to children and older adults; and that women were more likely to wear a mask than men.

Pan and Kim Krytus, assistant dean and director of graduate public health programs in the School of Public Health and Health Professions, who also served as faculty adviser on the project, presented the group’s findings in mid-December to the Western New York Public Health Alliance, a group of health directors from the eight counties of Western New York.

“That’s how we can make our findings more significant and meaningful, by engaging with decision-makers and using our findings to influence policy development,” says Pan.