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WVU, CDC finalize mask observation study results with plans to continue in the spring

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Data from the WVU/CDC mask observation study can be used by WVU and the local health department to assess whether additional messaging or other measures are needed to help reduce the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. (WVU Photo/Greg Ellis)

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The West Virginia University School of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded their mask-observation study, with plans to continue the project in the spring. 

The primary purpose of the study: estimate the percentage of people within the WVU community wearing masks correctly, as observing mask use can assist universities with determining the adherence among students, faculty and staff to inform public health decision-making.

For the final week of observations (week of Nov. 16), observers reported an increase in the number of individuals who wore masks (+5%), as well as an increase in the number of those who wore them correctly (+4.3%).  

Over the course of the seven-week study, a total of 3,144 people were observed. Of these observations: 

• 83.9% (2,637) wore masks; 

• 16.1% (507) did not wear masks; and

• 86% (2,269) wore their masks correctly. 

“We are very pleased with these results,” Keith Zullig, chair and professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and principal investigator, said. “Preliminary analyses suggest the upward trend in mask-wearing we observed over the course of the study was statistically significant, which means these results are likely not caused by chance. I believe communicating the observation results back to our community each week helped tremendously.” 

The data can be used by WVU and the local health department to assess whether additional messaging or other measures are needed to help reduce the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. 

For first-year Master of Public Health student Bethany Boback, who was one of eight student observers to participate in the study, being able to support this effort was meaningful to her in more ways than one. 

“I chose to participate in the study to help support WVU and their development of safety protocols against COVID-19,” Boback said. “Also, I am a local – for the most part, I grew up in Morgantown – and as a local, I have and probably will always have an interest in the well-being of my community, especially from a health perspective.” 

Boback, whose MPH major emphasis is social and behavioral sciences, recognized that even though “everyone should know the basic safety precautions … (such) as social distancing and wearing a mask,” that not everyone is taking those precautions. 

“There are societal and behavioral influences that factor into the health of a community and management of a deadly pandemic,” she said. 

It is likely those such influences that led to some surprises for both Boback and Parkersburg native Jordan Ceglar, an undergraduate public health major with minors in statistics and addiction studies, who also participated as a student observer. 

“One surprise was how a few students would not wear a mask correctly until right before they entered building or would immediately remove a mask after exiting, even though they are still on campus,” Boback said. 

“I was surprised at the number of people that wore masks on campus,” Ceglar said. “I had the assumption that the percentage of people who wore masks would have been lower.” 

As the study progressed, Boback also noticed a shift in the type of masks being used.

“This is subjective and relates only to my observations, but it seemed as though towards the end of the study, more people wore surgical masks instead of cloth or none at all,” she said. “I would be curious to further explore if this was a significant observation.” 

Ceglar, who chose to participate in the study to broaden his proficiencies and make him a more well-rounded student, said the experience was “very valuable” to him. 

“Not only did it help me create new network connections, but it also gave me experience with using a new data software and conducting observations,” he said. 

Multiple universities, including WVU, intend to continue the study in the spring. 

“I look forward to continuing our partnership with the CDC this spring, which has been a ‘win-win’ for everyone involved,” Zullig said. “Our students gained valuable primary data collection experience on a project with immediate, real-world implications.” 

Zullig added that some students were able to use the data for their capstone projects – a culminating component of each public health student’s academic program that focuses on applied experiences with a local agency. 

“Furthermore, our students expanded their professional network and experience with our CDC colleagues,” Zullig added. “Successful execution of the project would not have been possible without the support we received from the CDC.” 

To see a summary of WVU’s results of the seven-week study, visit Mask Observation Results.  

Data among participating universities was compiled and submitted for publication on Friday, Dec. 4, and will be shared with the public when made available. 

Additional resources, including weeks 0-5 updates: 

WVU travel guidelines

WVU holiday gatherings guidance 

DHHR holiday gatherings and travel guidance 

How to wear and remove your mask

Previous reports can be found below: 

Week 0 (baseline) results

Week 1 results 

Week 2 results

Week 3 results 

Week 4 results

Week 5 results 



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WVU School of Public Health

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