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COVID-19 'fatigue' causing drop in some protective measures, study finds

COVID-19 "fatigue" is having a negative effect on some protective measures that people are taking to guard against the coronavirus -- although mask-wearing is up, according to a new USC survey.

Protective measures such as avoiding close contact with non-household members and staying home are waning as the pandemic drags on, the study reported.

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.

Researchers said that protective behaviors remain important until a large percentage of the population is vaccinated.

"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.

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

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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
• 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%

"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.

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"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."