• New York City was one of the early hotspots for the spread of COVID-19. New York University researchers funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation have been studying human behavior near medical facilities to help inform policies on pandemics and other potential disasters. Credit: GagliardiPhotography/Shutterstock
     New York City was one of the early hotspots for the spread of COVID-19. New York University researchers funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation have been studying human behavior near medical facilities to help inform policies on pandemics and other potential disasters. Credit: GagliardiPhotography/Shutterstock

People Watching Provides Pandemic Insights

August 24, 2020
By George I. Seffers
E-mail About the Author

Behavior models could stop viral spreading.


New York University researchers are studying people’s behavior as they leave healthcare facilities to see how they physically interact with their immediate surroundings. The research will help develop localized disease-transmission models that can be applied to larger areas, such as cities. Potential models could be critical for predicting the continued spread of COVID-19 as well as future pandemics. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is funding the Three-dimensions to Enhance Response (DETER) one-year project.

To gather data, student recruits observe human behavior outside healthcare facilities, in some cases following them in public spaces, including nearby subway stations. The data is entirely anonymous, and the students do not take photographs or videos, ask for names or note physical characteristics. A review board assesses the research technique to ensure it follows ethical and legal guidelines.

DETER principal investigator Debra Laefer is a professor of urban informatics and director of the Citizen Science program within the Center for Urban Science and Progress and the Department of Civil and Urban Engineering, New York University. She says it is unusual for researchers to collect and analyze such data during a pandemic. “I think what’s interesting is that nobody has done something like this before—to be able to get this hyper-local behavior data of what people touch and where they went, what they did,” she says.

The project officially kicked off in March, and researchers have found some of the initial observations surprising. Laefer reports observers saw approximately 16 percent or 17 percent of the people leaving a facility go back in. “People come out, they have a cigarette, they use their phone, they get some food, they go back in,” she reports. “That was something we hadn’t really thought about. You have people coming out in PPE [personal protective equipment], and they go back in with the same PPE. They’re touching things. They may be tracking the virus to other places … and they may bring stuff back into the hospital.”

The researchers also were amazed by the number of items or surfaces people unwittingly touch, including handrails, doors and trash cans. In addition, as New York’s pause order continued, people were more likely to touch more things. “But it’s not so simple. It increases at different rates per facility,” Laefer elaborates.

Furthermore, people touch more items during certain times. “It increases at different rates per day. There are different days of the week where people tend to touch things more,” she adds.

Laefer and co-principal investigator Thomas Kirchner, assistant professor of social behavioral sciences, New York University, agree the data could help inform policies, such as the shut-down or so-called pause policies seen in New York and many other areas across the United States.

Kirchner says that as the policy implementation fluctuates, the researchers expect transmission rates and other indicators they can study also will fluctuate. “We can help cities optimize the way they use these sorts of policies to be able to make those smarter,” Kirchner says. Moving forward, he adds, the mechanistic approach—the study of the interaction among people and between people and places—can “help us understand how to implement pause-type policies for mitigating transmission of disease.”

Laefer says it is too soon to discuss the details but admits behavior patterns are emerging. “So, what happens is that we’ll look at one piece of the data for one facility, and now we need to go back and analyze the other 15 facilities and see if this is something that happens everywhere, or only in the Bronx or only at urgent cares,” she explains. “As we start getting into this really nuanced look at the data, we’re definitely seeing some things that people have not talked about or considered before.”

Read more about this research in SIGNAL Magazine’s October issue, available online on October 1.

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I'd like to know why no one has told the public they need to ware eye protection during Covid-2019?

Hi, Samuel. You raise a great point. I have actually heard that mentioned in some news reports, but it doesn't seem to be emphasized very much.

Thanks for commenting!

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