© 2023
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

UVM Scientists Research Risk Factors For COVID-19 Including Proper Mask Use

People wearing masks on Church Street in Burlington, VT
Joshua Brown
University of Vermont
People wearing masks on Church Street in Burlington, VT

University of Vermont researchers have published a study that assesses varying risk factors for COVID-19 including the effectiveness of wearing masks.
A new study finds that if you are not wearing your mask properly you may be contributing to the spread of COVID-19.  That’s one of the conclusions from UVM researchers who looked at “Risk Factors for COVID-19: Community Exposure and Mask Wearing.”  Scientists looked at a number of risk factors that contribute to the spread of the virus including how your work and housing environment may put you at risk.
Lead author Dr. Eline van den Broek-Altenburg says they initially surveyed participants and then tested those who agreed.  “We specifically wanted to make sure that we did the survey first and didn't say anything about the testing piece of that because we were initially very much interested in what percentage of people is actually socially distancing. So the survey piece was really crucial. And then later on we realized, you know, if we linked this data to test results for the very same people then we can draw conclusions about behaviors and exposure and link that to their test results.”

Van den Broek-Altenburg says the study assesses various environments that people are exposed to that could predict infection.  “We asked people specifically what profession they had and we linked that to national data about measures of exposures. Also people living in an apartment or a condo actually have higher probability of getting COVID than people living in a single family home, which intuitively makes sense. So we looked at all sorts of factors like that.”

Because Vermont is not doing much antibody testing, University of Vermont Associate Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Sean Diehl’s role in the study was to implement a new blood test that would seek out antibodies against the virus that causes COVID-19.

They gathered the blood samples taken for the study and tested for antibodies. They then determined which were positive for COVID-19. The laboratory results were then cross-referenced with survey results for behavioral analysis. Diehl says the testing developed for this study are being utilized in other applications.   “This kind of information is important as vaccines get developed. You can identify how the immune response, how the serology test, performs and how it changes over time in people with active infection. And the goal of vaccination is to mimic that kind of really strong, protective immune response. And so we think that this test could be used for helping to monitor vaccines.”

The report says “Wearing masks may create a false sense of security” because people could let their guard down by trusting the mask too much.  The report authors, including van den Broek-Altenburg, say behavioral studies regarding their use is urgent.  “Mask wearing is not a free pass to just go out and see more people. That's very obvious from our data. I think when it comes to public messaging then it goes hand in hand with wearing it in a way that actually helps. WHO (World Health Organization) has stressed this over and over again that you put on a mask once per day. You don't touch your face. You don't put it under your nose. You don't take it off, put in your pocket and put it back on. And if you use it multiple times you wash it. And these are relatively easy things to do and it's not widely happening. If mask wearing is a goal than it should probably go hand in hand with some more public campaigning about why we actually need it and how we should be using it.”