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Mask use slipping across Virginia, researchers find

The decline is worrying health officials as colder weather fuels new cases of COVID-19
Jay Breneman and his daughter, Anna Grace, browse footwear at Walkabout Outfitter in Richmond,...
Jay Breneman and his daughter, Anna Grace, browse footwear at Walkabout Outfitter in Richmond, Va., May 16, 2020.(Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)
Published: Nov. 23, 2021 at 7:36 AM EST
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Reported mask use in Virginia has been falling over the last several weeks, worrying public health experts as the winter holidays approach.

The data on masking comes from scientists at the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute and Carnegie Mellon’s Delphi Research Group, which has been tracking trends in pandemic-related behaviors and activities since March 2020. Using a slew of resources, including daily Facebook surveys and anonymized cell phone data from the company SafeGraph, researchers have been able to track several pandemic-related data points — from vaccine acceptance to the number of people resuming trips to bars and restaurants.

When it comes to masking, survey data indicates that use has dropped in Virginia since mid-September — the peak of the state’s most recent delta surge. For most of that month, more than 65 percent of respondents reported regularly wearing masks in public. By mid-November, it had dropped to roughly 62 percent, even as the average number of daily new cases again began to rise.

A decline of three percentage points may not seem like much, but the gradual stagnation in mask use is worrying to health experts for multiple reasons. For one, data from the last year shows that masking has tended to plummet as COVID-19 metrics improve, leaving fewer people taking a layered approach to prevent transmission. In July, for example — as case counts in Virginia reached record lows — fewer than 40 percent of people reported regularly wearing masks in public.

While it can be tempting to drop preventive strategies in the face of lower caseloads, a repeat of July’s numbers would be particularly troubling now, said Dr. Taison Bell, an infectious disease specialist at UVA. The highly infectious delta variant now accounts for virtually all new coronavirus infections in Virginia, according to data from the state Department of Health, and it’s changed the risk calculus for certain behaviors. While breakthrough cases are still relatively rare, vaccination can’t single-handedly stop someone from catching or spreading the disease.

“Delta created a big shift in how easily the virus spreads, and it makes it that much more important to not rely on anyone thing to stop transmission,” Bell said. Surveying also shows that unvaccinated Virginians — particularly those who are most resistant to the idea of getting the shots — are the least likely to be wearing masks.

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.(Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.

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