GW Students: Citizen Scientists in COVID 19 Study

Masks and physical distancing play a critical role in efforts to fight the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. Research estimates that 80% of the public need to comply with mask wearing and physical distancing in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Yet in many parts of the country, compliance with masking and physical distancing has been uneven.

To help find out more about adherence to these safety measures, George Washington University students, along with faculty advisors, are participating as citizen scientists in a new research project. Kaiser Permanente and the RAND Corporation launched the study, which is called Systematic Observation of Mask Adherence and Distancing or SOMAD. The project relies on citizen scientists to observe mask-wearing and physical distancing behaviors in their own communities and submit the data.

Amita Vyas, PhD, director of the GW Center of Excellence in Maternal and Child Health at the Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) and Monica Ruiz, PhD, associate professor at the Milken Institute SPH, are working with public health students who twice weekly collect on-site observations of people in various locations around the United States—in commercial strips, neighborhood, parks, play areas and walking paths.

The student-collected data will go into the large SOMAD database and will be analyzed to help public health officials figure out how many people in a given community are following these safety precautions. “Our students are getting a taste of field research and learning first-hand about data collection and reporting,” Vyas said. “Public health students want to be part of the fight against COVID-19, and this is a meaningful and tangible way for them to collect important data on life saving behaviors.”

The GW students are joined by citizen scientists all over the United States.

In an early analysis of SOMAD data collected by citizen scientists in Philadelphia, the Kaiser/RAND researchers found that less than half of Philadelphia residents were wearing masks properly when outside. The early results indicated that 43 percent of people wore masks correctly when out and about, 40 percent wore no masks and 17 percent wore masks incorrectly.

Such information can be crucial for public health officials trying to combat the pandemic and get more people to wear masks properly and stay six feet apart.

“For the GW students, the participation in this study not only gives them invaluable research skills but also an opportunity to make a difference in the fight against COVID-19,” Ruiz said.