COVID-19 Safety Calculator Created by Teachers College, Columbia University Psychologist May Help Inform Government and Business Guidelines
New York, NY — The nation is facing perhaps the most important decision of the COVID-19 pandemic so far: Should states “reopen for business as usual” and risk waves of new infections, or stay shuttered and continue to support a policy of self-isolation until there is a vaccine and a treatment — neither of which seem imminent? And if businesses, schools and other venues do reopen, what can individuals do to protect themselves and others from contracting the potentially deadly virus?
The COVID-19 Safety Calculator
To help analyze these complexities, a team of researchers, led by James D. Westaby, Professor of Psychology & Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, today released a new tool to potentially help public and private decision makers find a middle line. The tool, The COVID-19 Safety Calculator, helps individuals and workers assess the degree to which personal behaviors may be putting themselves and others at risk and provides personalized feedback to help them identify the behaviors they may need to change. The tool is free and open to all adults.
“We’re facing very tough questions in our nation’s history, dependent on complex analytics of human behavior,” says Westaby, who leads TC’s Dynamic Network Lab. “When should stay-at-home orders be rescinded, and for whom, to help re-start a struggling economy? What behaviors need to be focused on to keep workers and the public safe?
Hand washing? Social distancing? Disinfecting? Not touching the face? Mask wearing?”
[Access the free COVID-19 Safety Calculator at www.safetycalculator.org. Users’ anonymous responses will also be analyzed for research purposes and may be used to help inform future emergency prevention guidelines to help fight COVID-19. Government officials or authorized organizational representatives can learn more about getting involved with the Safety Calculator by contacting the Lab at https://www.tc.columbia.edu/dnl/for-gov-officials/]
Many states are already in limited reopening mode, despite recent polls showing that many Americans who are back at work fear that they could infect their families, and that many more also think that a full-scale return should be delayed until later in the summer.
Questions About Following Preventive Measures
The Safety Calculator asks users to answer a brief set of questions about how frequently, during the preceding two weeks, they have followed the preventive measures recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Questions include: Are you staying at home as much as possible? How much are you avoiding touching your face, mouth and eyes? Are you regularly disinfecting computer keyboards, phones, doorknobs, faucets and toilets? How often are you washing your hands for at least 20 seconds — and are you using hand sanitizers when soap and water aren’t available? Compliance is graded on a three-point scale.
From the answers to those questions, the Safety Calculator generates a safety score (with 100 representing total compliance) and a personalized set of recommendations for users on how to possibly improve their personal safety behaviors. Then the tool asks additional questions to determine whether the user currently has any COVID-19 symptoms (all answers are anonymous) and to explore, based on scientifically-validated theories developed in the Dynamic Network Lab, the user’s motivations in complying (or not complying) with specific recommended behaviors.
In early tests with over one thousand participants, Westaby reports some striking, although preliminary findings. First, the vast majority of users are reporting some behaviors that do not meet CDC recommendations, including touching their eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands, and the touching eyes item also had a significant relation to COVID-19. Second, users with lower overall compliance scores are likelier to report having higher COVID-19 symptoms. This result “appears to provide some of the first preliminary scientific evidence that the 18-item set of CDC-based safety behaviors has a significant inverse relationship with reported COVID-19 symptoms,” Westaby says.
The Calcuator May Hold A Greater Value
The Safety Calculator was initially envisioned to help individuals reduce their risky behaviors by providing clear and fast feedback. But Westaby believes that the Safety Calculator may hold even greater value for helping both the nation as a whole, and specific states, or business communities, set more effective emergency prevention guidelines to help fight COVID-19 based on behavioral dynamics.
“We’re behavioral scientists — we focus on decision-making, motivation and changing human behavior in complex networks,” he says of his team. “And that’s what fighting COVID-19 depends on until we have a vaccine or a strong treatment. With a high volume of data coming in, we hope our findings will help to further identify the specific behaviors most strongly associated with COVID-19 reduction and use those findings to help better inform health officials, organizations, and business communities in their efforts to prevent further spread in the public and among workers returning to their jobs.”
The tool has much potential for businesses as well, he says, given that it asks workers what supports — ranging from better social distancing at work to better protective equipment — would help them better adjust to their job in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Such information may be key for organizations to better understand their employees’ needs as well as help keep them safe.
Westaby is working with large professional organizations, such as the Society for Human Resource Management, in efforts to use the Safety Calculator. “Many people who return to work won’t be able to practice six-foot social distancing, and some may not have immediate access to all desired safety equipment, such as an N95 masks,” he says. “So, following the CDC guidelines may be an important defense at work as well. After all, it may take just one infectious person to create a catastrophic spread in a densely packed organizational space — and when it’s, say, a meat packing company, that can become national news. And if people don’t feel safe returning to work, it can cause other issues, such as when employees decide to strike to protest unsafe working conditions. The bottom line is that personal safety can oftentimes be the same as worker safety.”
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