In a recent study at the University of Vermont and elsewhere, researchers found that the behavior public officials are now mandating or recommending unequivocally to slow the spread of COVID-19—wearing a face covering—should come with a caveat.
If not accompanied by proper public education, the practice could lead to more infections.
The study is published in SSRN. One author is Assistant Professor Eline van den Broek-Altenburg.
In the study, the team combined survey data gathered from adults living in northwestern Vermont with test results that showed whether a subset of them had contracted COVID-19, a dual research approach that few COVID studies have employed.
By correlating the two data sets, they were able to determine what behaviors and circumstances increased respondents’ risk of becoming sick.
The key risk factor driving transmission of the disease, the team found, was the number of daily contacts participants had with other adults and seniors.
That had relevance for two other findings:
Those who wore masks had more of these daily contacts compared with those who didn’t, and a higher proportion contracted the virus as a result.
The public health implications are clear. The researchers say that messaging that people need to wear a mask is essential, but insufficient.
It should go hand in hand with the education that masks don’t give people a free pass to see as many people as they want. They still need to strictly limit their contacts.
Public education messaging should make clear how to wear a mask safely to limit infection, the team adds.
In a second key finding, the team found that participants’ living environment determined how many contacts they had and affected their probability of becoming infected.
A higher proportion of those living in apartments was infected with the virus compared with those who lived in single-family homes.
The study controlled for the profession to prevent essential workers, who by definition have more contacts and are usually required to wear masks, from skewing the results.
The researchers hope it leads to other, larger studies that combine survey data with widespread testing.
This approach is essential to both understanding the dynamics of this pandemic and planning our response to futures ones.
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