Grad Students Part of National Study on Masking, Social Distancing

People wearing masks in a crowd.

UB graduate students in public health recently were among researchers collecting and analyzing data on mask-wearing and social distancing.

Their findings revealed differences in mask adherence by sex, race and age, and show that Erie County’s (N.Y.) mask rate was 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 monitor adherence to public health safety 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.

Students from the departments of Community Health and Health Behavior, and Epidemiology and Environmental Health, collected data for three months, observing masking and social distancing behavior of more than 5,000 people n outdoor and indoor settings in Albany, Erie and Nassau counties. Additional observations were made in China.

Dylan Jablonski, a student in UB’s Online Master of Public Health program, says the experience gave him valuable lessons 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.

Intriguing patterns

Findings from observations made in New York revealed that certain factors may play a role in mask adherence. For example, in Erie County, Black women had the highest rates of mask adherence. 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.

“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.”

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

Intriguing findings

According to the SOMAD study:

  • Mask adherence was highest in June. During this time, the seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 cases was at its lowest point of the summer. Researchers suggest mask adherence may have been higher then because the county’s vaccination rate was lower than it had been in previous months.
  • The national study looked at the physical activity level and mask adherence. Local results show sedentary individuals had a higher rate of mask adherence.
  • People in indoor settings were more likely to wear a mask and maintain social distancing.
  • Adults had a higher rate of mask adherence compared to children and older adults.
  • Women were more likely to wear a mask than men.