Auburn partners with CDC to conduct mask observation study, reports encouraging results

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Auburn University researchers are working to better understand mask use behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response to a call from the Alabama Department of Public Health, Auburn has partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, to address the high positivity rate of SARS-CoV-2 among the college-aged demographic. SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19.

The CDC has joined forces with other universities across the country for the same study, but Auburn is the only university in Alabama participating in the partnership.

The work between Auburn and the CDC involves a longitudinal observational mask use study to measure the proportion of people who are: wearing masks, wearing a mask correctly and wearing different mask types, such as N95, surgical, cloth, gaiter or other.

The use of face masks has been shown to reduce transmission of the virus, which has infected more than 50 million people worldwide.

Correct mask usage includes covering both the nose and mouth, securing it under the chin and ensuring a snug fit against the sides of the face. The CDC does not recommend use of masks for source control if they have an exhalation valve or vent, nor should masks be positioned around the neck or on the forehead. The state of Alabama and Auburn have had mask mandates in place since the summer.

The Auburn study is led by Linda Gibson-Young, an associate professor in the School of Nursing, and Andrea Perkins, a clinical lecturer in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Undergraduate and graduate students from across campus are serving as data collectors and were trained by the CDC.

Students will observe and record the indoor mask use of individuals at 10 on-campus and 10 off-campus locations for six weeks. Data collectors conducted 534 observations during the initial week of the study, creating a baseline for future data, 484 observations during the first week of follow-up and 426 observations during the second week of follow-up.

Results so far are as follows:

  • Mask use compliance at all locations — baseline, 89.89 percent; week one, 90.08 percent and week two, 88.50 percent
  • On-campus mask use compliance — baseline, 94.15 percent; week one, 86.22 percent and week two,  85.71 percent (average 88.70 percent)
  • Off-campus mask use compliance — baseline, 87.23 percent; week one, 92.71 percent and week two, 89.58 percent (average 89.84 percent)
  • Cloth masks were the most common type of mask observed in all locations. They were worn by 61.14 percent of individuals, followed by surgical masks (31.95 percent), neck gaiters (4.68 percent), N95 (1.60 percent) and ‘other’ (0.62 percent).
  • In on-campus locations, masks were worn correctly an average 86.92 percent of the time over the first three weeks, and in off-campus locations, masks were worn correctly an average 88.95 percent of the time.

So far, mask use compliance is generally high, but there has been a slight decline in on-campus mask wearing compliance over the first three weeks of observation. Researchers will watch these fluctuations closely as observations continue. Weekly data collection should illustrate trends in mask use compliance over time in the Auburn community.

“This is important because, even though many community members may be experiencing pandemic fatigue, we need to stay diligent in our prevention efforts,” said Perkins, an infection prevention specialist. “Cases of COVID-19 are increasing again both locally and nationally and, with cooler weather and the holidays approaching, there is opportunity for cases to continue to rise as people start gathering more indoors. Wearing a mask properly is one of the most simple, effective ways to greatly reduce the chances of transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Maintaining high mask compliance is a crucial measure we can take to protect those around us and can help us maintain normal day-to-day activities as much as possible.”

“The information gathered in this study can inform Auburn University and public health across this region to keep people safe and healthy as we continue to progress through this pandemic,” added Gibson-Young. “We must be part of the solution to take steps in compliance with mask mandates and CDC guidance. Masks create a physical barrier to catch infectious droplets and prevent the spread.”

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