Survey: Social Distancing Behavior Improves But Not Enough To Stop The Surge : Shots - Health News Mask-wearing hit an all-time high, but other COVID-19 precautions are less common now than last spring, a survey finds. Experts worry we're ill-prepared for the spread of more infectious new variants.

Mask-Wearing, Social Distancing Improve, But Too Slowly, Survey Shows

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We are almost a year into this pandemic. And a lot of Americans are being more careful, trying to avoid catching and spreading the coronavirus. But too many people still aren't being nearly careful enough. That's according to a big new national survey out today. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is with us with details. Hi, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So infections, hospitalizations, deaths continue to hit record highs in this country. Tell us more about what this new research is showing.

STEIN: Well, Rachel, there's good news and there's bad news. First, the good news - over the past month, mask-wearing reached an all-time high of about 80%. This comes from the largest survey tracking behavior during the pandemic. Researchers at Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers and Northwestern universities have been surveying about 20,000 people nationwide every month since the pandemic began. And over the last month, in addition to mask-wearing, fewer people reported doing risky things like, you know, going to work, going to the gym, eating in restaurants, spending time in crowds or, you know, in a room with people they don't live with. That's all encouraging because, for a while, the trend had been in the opposite direction. People have been letting down their guard since last spring. And that's, you know, helped fuel the deadly surge wreaking havoc right now.

MARTIN: Right. OK. So that was the good news. That was the positive side. People are being more cautious. What's the not-good news?

STEIN: Yeah. So bottom line, people still aren't being nearly careful enough, not even as careful as they were back in the spring when the pandemic really took off. And not nearly enough are being nearly careful enough to really turn the tide. Here's David Lazer from Northeastern. He helps run the survey.

DAVID LAZER: I don't think we're keeping pace with the virus, right? We are changing our behaviors. But also, the virus is changing how it spreads. And I think the virus has dramatically improved. And we have moderately improved. So at the moment, the viruses outcompeting us.

STEIN: You know, in fact, Rachel, people are letting down their guard a little bit more in some ways. For example, fewer people are doing the most basic thing, washing their hands a lot.

MARTIN: So I feel like we should clarify. We've said the good news is a lot of people are being more careful. The bad news is not enough people are being careful. But both those things can be true, right? It's just a subset of Americans are being really careful, but it's not widespread enough. Is that right?

STEIN: Yeah. People are doing a little bit better. But they're just not doing nearly better enough.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK.

STEIN: And, you know, we've got to really catch up here because we're in this race with this virus.

MARTIN: Right. And there's a new variant - right? - at least one that's spreading more easily. Is that complicating things?

STEIN: Yeah, absolutely. You know, and one of those variants has already been discovered in this country. And others are emerging in other countries. So public health experts are just terrified that one or more of them could take off in this country just like it did in the U.K. And while these variants don't appear to make people sicker, the more people who get infected, the more who will end up getting sick and dying. So like I said, it's a race to keep the virus from spreading as much as possible, to keep these new versions at bay, to buy time for as many people as possible to get vaccinated. I talked about this with Dr. Thomas Frieden. He used to run the CDC.

THOMAS FRIEDEN: It's us against them, humanity against the virus. And the more we work together, the better off we'll all be.

STEIN: Because if we don't and the more contagious strain takes off, Dr. Frieden says it will just make a bad situation even worse.

MARTIN: Any idea at this point how the pandemic is expected to evolve?

STEIN: So you know, a lot of public health experts think the pandemic could actually peak nationally this month and slowly start to get better as the weather improves and more and more people get vaccinated. But, you know, the wild cards is, you know, how fast we vaccinate people, how careful people are.

MARTIN: All right. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: You bet, Rachel.

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