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As Pandemic Wears On, Massachusetts Residents Have Increased Risky Behaviors, Survey Finds

A study run by several Boston-area universities found people have relaxed their approach to social distancing.
A study run by several Boston-area universities found people have relaxed their approach to social distancing. By Zadoc I. N. Gee
By Justin Lee and Meimei Xu, Contributing Writers

Over the past seven months, Massachusetts residents have relaxed their adherence to COVID-19 prevention guidelines, according to a new survey conducted by researchers from Harvard, Northeastern, Northwestern, and Rutgers.

The report — published Nov. 13 and titled “The Trajectory of Health-Related Behaviors in Massachusetts” — analyzed survey data to characterize how individual behavior has changed in the state over the course of the pandemic.

Overall, the survey showed a “substantial relaxation of many of the behaviors that helped slow the spread of the disease in the spring.” Such behaviors include avoiding public and crowded spaces, frequent hand washing and disinfecting, and limiting contact with non-household members.

The survey also showed that people have increased participation in activities outside of their homes, such as going to restaurants and bars, exercising at gyms, and visiting friends.

In April and May, for example, the number of respondents who reported activities like spending time in close proximity to non-household members and going to restaurants in the past 24 hours was low, at 22 and 5 percent, respectively. By October, those figures had doubled and tripled, to 45 percent and 15 percent.

Matthew A. Baum, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and a researcher on the team, said the findings “disappointed him.”

“But I wouldn't say it's surprising,” he said. “It's really hard for people to stay on their guard for a really, really long period of time. It's exhausting.”

Mask-wearing is the only exception to the trend, having increased in Massachusetts since April. In October, 80 percent of respondents reported wearing a mask outside of the home, “among the highest levels of adherence anywhere in the country,” per the report.

The report on Massachusetts is the 24th in a series of research reports — launched in March and entitled “The State of the Nation: A 50-State COVID-19 Survey” — that aims to find links between social behavior and COVID-19 transmission in every state.

“There was basically an almost complete lack of information around the country as to where the emerging hotspots were and how the virus spread,” Baum said.

Though Baum said the series of reports isn’t a true substitute for epidemiological data on virus transmission, he and fellow researchers thought “it might be the next best thing.”

Mauricio Santillana, another member of the team and a professor at Harvard Medical School, acknowledged that the desire to congregate and the tendency to become fatigued after months of isolation are natural.

“We love congregating, and we'll do our best to do it, and that's part of humanity,” Santillana said. “Unfortunately, in this crisis, that will play against us.”

David M. J. Lazer, a professor at Northeastern University and first author of the report, said the team also hopes to study how colder temperatures will affect social distancing behaviors and virus transmission rates this winter.

“Tracking both the behaviors and attitudes around this will be important as we go through the winter, because part of the problem we're confronting is that we can't do the things we could do in summer,” Lazer said. “So how do people react to the constraints the environment — like the climate — is putting on us?”

Though there may be new challenges this winter — like spending the holidays away from family and increasing mental health concerns — researchers said they hope to encourage Americans to stay vigilant about adhering to public health guidelines.

“Preventable deaths may happen because of our fatigue, and so we’re trying to encourage people to not give up too soon,” Santillana said.

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