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Coronavirus Fatigue Jeopardizes Safe Reopenings: USC Study

Patch logo Patch 1/27/2021 Paige Austin
a person sitting on a park bench: People's willingness to maintain protective measures is key to preventing another surge in cases, but vigilance ebbs and flows. © Shutterstock / Kzenon People's willingness to maintain protective measures is key to preventing another surge in cases, but vigilance ebbs and flows.

LOS ANGELES, CA — Just as Los Angeles County eases health restrictions, researchers at USC found that "coronavirus fatigue" is leading people to take greater risks with their own health as well as others around them.

Since the start of the pandemic, residents have dramatically let their guard down, a trend that ebbs and flows with headlines about the severity of the local outbreak. Mask-wearing has steadily increased since the coronavirus began spreading across Southern California in the spring, but the willingness to stay home, avoid gatherings and other protective measures is considerably down.

The findings were called worrisome, given the importance of the "Swiss cheese" model of pandemic defense -- in which multiple layers of protection block the spread of the new coronavirus. The risk of COVID-19 infection remains extremely high across all Southern California because the coronavirus is so widespread in the community. The bottom line is that for restaurants and salons to remain open, people need to be vigilant about protective measures.

According to the experts, the state and county's easing of business restrictions could succeed without exacerbating the outbreak if people take precautions.

“Everything hinges on the behaviors we adopt. If we adopt behaviors where everyone is masking, everyone is keeping to distancing, that all of the rules the governor has in place are enforced, I think there’s a possibility for us to resume some of these activities,” UC San Francisco epidemiologist Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s not an outrageous idea. This is not an outrageous policy.”

However, the USC survey indicates that people become increasingly careless as the pandemic drags on.

"There has been a lot of talk about `pandemic fatigue,' and this study clearly shows that people are less willing to take precautions to limit the risk of infection and slow the spread of the virus," said John Romley, lead researcher on the study and a senior fellow at the USC Schaeffer Center for Health Policy & Economics.

USC's research team used data from the Understanding America Study, an ongoing survey of 7,705 U.S. residents by the Center for Economic and Social Research at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

They analyzed 16 waves of survey responses to the Coronavirus Tracking Survey between April 1, 2020 and Nov. 24, 2020. The survey was sent every two weeks to U.S. residents.

The researchers found:

  • Mask-wearing increased from 39.2% in early April to 88.6% in late November.
  • Staying at home, except for essential activities or exercise, decreased from 79.6% to 41.4%.
  • Avoiding close contact with non-household members decreased from 63.5% to 37.8%.
  • Not having visitors decreased from 80.3% to 57.6%.
  • Avoiding eating in restaurants decreased from 87.3% to 65.8%

Until a wide swath of the community has been vaccinated against the virus — something that could take all year to happen in Los Angeles County — protective measures remain key.

"Vaccines are here, but vaccination takes time," Romley said "In the meantime, we need to stay focused on protecting one another. We should target behaviors that are most effective and least disruptive. We also need to recognize that people may be tempted to let down their guards after a first dose of vaccine."

The researchers said they developed an "adherence index" to 16 evidence-based protective measures to measure apathy and resistance toward interventions. Responses were adjusted for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, household income and the seven-day mean of daily new cases in the respondent*s state.

According to the study, overall adherence on the index decreased substantially from 70.0, out of a possible 100, in early April, to the high 50s in June before increasing to 60.1 by late November. The trends occurred in all regions of the U.S.

"The general decrease we see in protective behaviors matches anecdotal reports, but the difference we find between behaviors is a very new and important addition to the conversation," said co-author Matthew Crane, a medical student at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a visiting scholar at the USC Schaeffer Center.

"Attention to pandemic fatigue is especially relevant given rising concerns about new variants of the virus, which may require even greater physical distancing measures to curb transmission."

The study was published on Jan. 22 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

City News Service and Patch staffer Paige Austin contributed to this report.

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