Twice a week since mid-February, Fresno State public health student Julie Yang has visited outdoor parks and trails, public shopping centers, neighborhoods and grocery stores all over Fresno. But she wasn’t there to shop or exercise. Her primary objective was to collect data on how many individuals were adhering to mask and physical distancing guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“While out in the field, we would observe up to 60 individuals each time,” Yang said. “Through my own observations and the reliability checks I did with other volunteers, I’ve observed that in an outdoor setting there isn’t a lot of mask adherence.”

Yang is part of a multidisciplinary team of students, faculty and community members involved in a national research project, SOMAD — Systematic Observation of Mask Adherence and Distancing — which was launched by the Kaiser Permanente and RAND Corporation. The nationwide project is aimed at helping prevent the spread of COVID-19 by observing who is masking and physical distancing in outdoor public spaces. 

Research estimates that 80% of the public needs to comply with mask wearing and physical distancing in order to limit the spread of the disease. 

“We discovered mask adherence appears lower in Fresno County than in other national locations where SOMAD data are also being collected,” said Dr. Nicole Smith, lead investigator of the project and faculty fellow of the Central California Children’s Institute at Fresno State, which funded the project. “Community-level data are essential for understanding critical issues that impact people who live, work and play in Fresno County. The data can help inform future efforts to promote mask and distance behavior to safeguard people in our community from COVID-19.”

A total of 46 data collectors were involved in the project, including over 30 Fresno State students and faculty from the departments of kinesiology, public health, sociology, recreation administration and psychology, in addition to local high school students and volunteers. The project gives students an opportunity to learn firsthand about field research and data collection, and its impact in mitigating COVID-19. 

“Students were able to contribute to the planning, implementation and evaluation of the SOMAD project and really learn what it takes to get an important project going from the ground up,” said Dr. Tanisha Garcia, assistant professor in the Department of Public Health. “For the public health interns, the opportunity to take this experience and utilize it in the real world is priceless. Our students were able to experience one of the most important aspects of scientific research — data collection.”

The data collected will be entered into a national SOMAD database, which will allow public health stakeholders the ability to compare Fresno data with data collected in other locations nationally. Efforts to translate the results to aid local stakeholders will also be considered. 

Early local analysis showed individuals were more likely to wear masks when requirements were publicly posted and when there was supervision to hold the public accountable. Mask adherence was best in locations like commercial centers (i.e. grocery stores and shopping centers) and relatively lower in locations with posted recommendations, but no supervision, such as public parks.

Local data and preliminary results from the SOMAD project will be presented during a community-wide virtual discussion and panel from 10 to 11:15 a.m. Friday, April 30, hosted by the College of Health and Human Services. (Register for the online event.)

“This was a significant project for Fresno State, for many reasons,” Smith said. “We generated a sizable community-level data set with more than 500 observation events in 27 locations. We also created a model for engaging students and faculty from multiple disciplines in meaningful and timely applied research that can be replicated for other projects at the University. We are now in a position to make comparisons with other study locations and engage in collaboration with faculty from other universities throughout the country.”

For more information, contact Dr. Nicole Smith at njsmith@csufresno.edu

Read original press release in Fresno State News.