Handwashing and social distancing protect ‘essential’ college staff in the absence of vaccines, study finds

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Masking, hand washing and social distancing help limit the spread of COVID-19 on college campuses, study finds. File photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License picture

July 21 (UPI) — According to a study published Wednesday by Open JAMA Network found.

Among the 508 staff at Colorado State University Health and Medical Center, veterinary clinic, facilities management, housing and food services who were scheduled to report to work during the pandemic, no positive tests for the virus have took place over a three-month period last summer, the data showed.

Just under 98% of essential staff said they regularly wore face coverings at home and at work, and 95% said they washed their hands frequently throughout the day, according to Researchers.

Ninety-two percent said they practiced social distancing — or staying about 6 feet from others and limiting non-essential contact with others — at work and 80% said they did so at home, the data shows.

“To reduce transmission of the virus, it is important to follow public health guidelines, including wearing a mask, regular hand washing and social distancing,” said study co-author Tracy L. Nelson to UPI in an email.

“[These guidelines] and must be followed both on campus and off campus to be effective,” said Nelson, director of the Colorado School of Public Health at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

The study was conducted in July, August and September of last year, before students returned to campus and before vaccines against the virus became available, the researchers said.

This was also before many colleges and universities opened nationwide for the school year and then closed abruptly following campus outbreaks.

Like many universities nationwide, Colorado State held classes in person and online, when possible, during the 2020-21 academic year to limit the student population on campus, according to school officials.

However, even with reduced populations on campus, gathering spaces such as dining halls, locker rooms, lecture halls and laboratories are still considered high-risk areas for COVID-19 transmission and outbreaks, according to the research.

A study published in January suggested that because of these crowding environments, college campuses could be “superspreaders” of the virus, putting students and staff at risk.

As a result, several colleges and universities across the country have required students and staff returning to campus in the fall to be fully vaccinated or subject to strict quarantine measures.

For this study, Nelson and his colleagues tested 508 university employees between the ages of 18 and 70 for COVID-19 on three occasions between July 13 and September 2 last year.

All but six tested negative for the virus during the study, with the rest producing “inconclusive” results.

Only two study participants tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, or cells produced by the immune system to fight off viruses, indicating past infection, the researchers said.

Study participants also completed questionnaires regarding their adherence to measures designed to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The vast majority of participants reported practicing protective behaviors at work and outside of work, with some differences, the researchers found.

For example, all employees aged 65 and older reported high levels of social distancing at work, while 83% of those aged 18 to 25 did, according to the data.

Of all employees included in the study, 83% said they were more concerned about exposing others to COVID-19 than contracting the virus themselves.

This “prosocial” behavior, helpful and designed to promote social acceptance, was essential for staff to limit the risk of outbreaks on campus as much as possible, according to Nelson.

“I believe it will be important to cultivate a prosocial attitude on campus” as campuses reopen for the 2021-22 academic year, Nelson said.

The state of Colorado “has developed a ‘social normalization’ campaign to help promote protective behaviors among students” — including mask wearing and social distancing — during the pandemic, she said.

Michelle J. Kelley