Mask-Wearing, Social Distancing Improve, But Too Slowly, Survey Shows

Jan 15, 2021
Originally published on January 15, 2021 10:40 am

Americans are being more careful to avoid catching and spreading the coronavirus but are still not being careful enough to slow the pandemic, especially with worrisome, apparently more contagious new variants looming.

That's the conclusion of the latest findings, released Friday, from the largest national survey tracking behavior during the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's good news-bad news," says David Lazer of Northeastern University, who is helping run the survey with colleagues at Harvard, Rutgers and Northwestern universities.

"The good news is we've improved a lot in terms of mask-wearing and social distancing. The bad news is, to bend the curve they really need to be much better," Lazer says.

Lazer's consortium has regularly surveyed about 20,000 people in all 50 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia since last spring. The latest data come from 25,640 people who were surveyed Dec. 16 and Jan. 11.

Mask-wearing reached an all-time high of about 80%, the survey found. In addition, a wide range of other behaviors also improved, since the last survey completed Dec. 1. For example, there were declines in the percentages of people saying that in the past 24 hours they went to work, the gym or a restaurant or spent time in crowded places or a room with people outside their household.

The trends are encouraging, especially because many social distancing behaviors had decreased between the spring and the fall, which likely helped fuel the surge that's currently underway, Lazer says.

But aside from mask-wearing, all the other precautionary behaviors still remain less common than they were in survey results from the spring. For instance, frequent hand-washing declined compared to spring.

"Clearly this is not enough to keep COVID-19 from spreading," Lazer says.

Others agree.

"It was a bit startling to see how many people spent time indoors with someone outside their household," Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist at the University of Arizona, told NPR via email.

As we wait for widespread vaccination to take place, precautionary behaviors are still vitally important, says Dr. Benjamin Linas, an associate professor of epidemiology at Boston University.

"This is a critical moment," he says. "We are in a race between the virus and our pace of vaccination."

Those concerns are being magnified by the emergence of the new, more contagious strains.

"We have uncontrolled spread of COVID in most of the country, and there is a reasonably high likelihood that the new, more infectious strain from the United Kingdom or other highly infectious strains may gain a foothold here and make a really bad situation even worse," says Dr. Thomas Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We need to not just do more of the same. We need to do better of the same," he adds.

The survey results come during the worst period since the pandemic began. More than 200,000 people are getting infected every day in the U.S., and more than 4,000 deaths are being reported on some days. Hospitalizations are at record highs.

The current surge was probably intensified by people traveling and gathering for the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's holidays, several experts told NPR.

A second report from the survey finds that support for new measures to curb the virus's spread is high nationwide. That includes asking people to stay home and avoid gatherings, requiring most businesses to close, canceling major sports and entertainment events, limiting restaurants to carry-out only, restricting international and domestic travel and prohibiting K-12 teaching in person.

"We found remarkably strong support across the board for increasingly strong measures," Lazer says.

At least in some states, the very worst of the current surge may be over, according to a high-profile research group at the University of Washington in Seattle. The group regularly releases projections for the pandemic. The pandemic has probably peaked in 23 states and will likely peak nationally by the end of the month, the group says.

But a total of 566,720 people could die from the pandemic by May 1 unless greater efforts are made to slow the virus's spread, the group estimates. While that's slightly lower than the group's previous projection, researchers say even more lives could be saved if more people took precautions.

"Definitely we need to do much better, and we can do much better," says Ali Mokdad of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

"The behaviors that we have right now are not good enough. We still need to do better in order to bring this virus down much faster."

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We are almost a year into this pandemic. And a lot of Americans are being more careful, trying to avoid catching and spreading the coronavirus. But too many people still aren't being nearly careful enough. That's according to a big new national survey out today. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is with us with details. Hi, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So infections, hospitalizations, deaths continue to hit record highs in this country. Tell us more about what this new research is showing.

STEIN: Well, Rachel, there's good news and there's bad news. First, the good news - over the past month, mask-wearing reached an all-time high of about 80%. This comes from the largest survey tracking behavior during the pandemic. Researchers at Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers and Northwestern universities have been surveying about 20,000 people nationwide every month since the pandemic began. And over the last month, in addition to mask-wearing, fewer people reported doing risky things like, you know, going to work, going to the gym, eating in restaurants, spending time in crowds or, you know, in a room with people they don't live with. That's all encouraging because, for a while, the trend had been in the opposite direction. People have been letting down their guard since last spring. And that's, you know, helped fuel the deadly surge wreaking havoc right now.

MARTIN: Right. OK. So that was the good news. That was the positive side. People are being more cautious. What's the not-good news?

STEIN: Yeah. So bottom line, people still aren't being nearly careful enough, not even as careful as they were back in the spring when the pandemic really took off. And not nearly enough are being nearly careful enough to really turn the tide. Here's David Lazer from Northeastern. He helps run the survey.

DAVID LAZER: I don't think we're keeping pace with the virus, right? We are changing our behaviors. But also, the virus is changing how it spreads. And I think the virus has dramatically improved. And we have moderately improved. So at the moment, the viruses outcompeting us.

STEIN: You know, in fact, Rachel, people are letting down their guard a little bit more in some ways. For example, fewer people are doing the most basic thing, washing their hands a lot.

MARTIN: So I feel like we should clarify. We've said the good news is a lot of people are being more careful. The bad news is not enough people are being careful. But both those things can be true, right? It's just a subset of Americans are being really careful, but it's not widespread enough. Is that right?

STEIN: Yeah. People are doing a little bit better. But they're just not doing nearly better enough.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK.

STEIN: And, you know, we've got to really catch up here because we're in this race with this virus.

MARTIN: Right. And there's a new variant - right? - at least one that's spreading more easily. Is that complicating things?

STEIN: Yeah, absolutely. You know, and one of those variants has already been discovered in this country. And others are emerging in other countries. So public health experts are just terrified that one or more of them could take off in this country just like it did in the U.K. And while these variants don't appear to make people sicker, the more people who get infected, the more who will end up getting sick and dying. So like I said, it's a race to keep the virus from spreading as much as possible, to keep these new versions at bay, to buy time for as many people as possible to get vaccinated. I talked about this with Dr. Thomas Frieden. He used to run the CDC.

THOMAS FRIEDEN: It's us against them, humanity against the virus. And the more we work together, the better off we'll all be.

STEIN: Because if we don't and the more contagious strain takes off, Dr. Frieden says it will just make a bad situation even worse.

MARTIN: Any idea at this point how the pandemic is expected to evolve?

STEIN: So you know, a lot of public health experts think the pandemic could actually peak nationally this month and slowly start to get better as the weather improves and more and more people get vaccinated. But, you know, the wild cards is, you know, how fast we vaccinate people, how careful people are.

MARTIN: All right. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: You bet, Rachel.

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