Misconception on COVID-19 Spread Makes People Ignore Face Masks: Study
Wed, April 21, 2021

Misconception on COVID-19 Spread Makes People Ignore Face Masks: Study


When going outside, people tend to wear face masks due to COVID-19. However, some individuals do not wear masks, despite the risk of contracting the disease. And according to a new study, those individuals may have misunderstood the coronavirus spread.

The study of the relationship between understanding the COVID-19 spread and wearing face masks was led by researchers at the Social Cognition Center Cologne and the University of Bremen. Their findings showed that people who misunderstood the spread of the disease likely do not wear face masks, compared to those who recognized the risk. One factor correlated to the misunderstanding is mistakes in reading statistics, wherein they believe that the spread is linear. They published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Linear vs. Exponential Spread of COVID-19

In statistics, the growth of something happening can be expressed linearly or exponentially. These two descriptions can show how the situation is progressing and how it will likely impact subjects in the long run. COVID-19 has been continuously spreading worldwide after the initial steps of containment failed. As such, governments are having difficulties in stopping community transmission, especially if the local economy needs a restart.

Unfortunately, many people can misunderstand the expression of the spread of COVID-19. After reading statistics provided by reputable sources, the misconception may result in not wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing. Since the spread appears slow in linear expression, they may think that the disease has been contained in their area. This misconception can heighten their risk of contracting the illness and spreading it to others. It may become a key player in new outbreaks.

Recently, a group of researchers published a study to correct the misperception of the spread of COVID-19. They urged the public that the spread of the disease remains exponential, no matter how the numbers are represented in charts. By understanding this, the public might stop underestimating the potential of COVID-19 to start new outbreaks. If everyone would adhere to face masks and social distancing, government agencies would have more control over the global crisis.

"In general, people have difficulty understanding exponential growth and erroneously interpret it in linear terms instead," said Joris Lammers, the first author of the study and researcher at the University of Bremen, as quoted by Psychology Today, a US magazine.

In the study, three experiments were performed in the second half of March 2020, when COVID-19 was spreading quickly in the US. A total of 500 adult participants joined the experiments and their ideas of the disease spread were tested. The first experiment involved calculating the total number of COVID-19 cases in the past five days, from March 17 to March 21, 2020. The estimates provided by participants were found with significant bias. The perception trend of exponential COVID-19 growth was 18.78, dwarfed by the 470.55 perception trend of linear growth. The approximate value of underestimated actual growth of COVID-19 was 45.7%.

For the second experiment, researchers tested if the perception of the participants could be corrected. They instructed them about exponential growth and the influence of social distancing measures on COVID-19 spread. This experiment followed the design of the first, yet participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. One condition described the spread of the disease in the US each day, in which cases rise constantly and sometimes would double every three days. The other condition lacked the description to simulate a group of controls. Results suggested that participants who were instructed corrected their misconception of exponential COVID-19 spread.

In the last experiment, researchers provided instructions to enhance the support for social distancing. Participants were given the current estimated number of COVID-19 cases in the US and the statistics of days when cases doubled. Next, they were asked to estimate the growth of cases in the next 15 days. Those assigned for the experimental condition had to estimate the growth using five steps provided by researchers. Those assigned for the control condition could estimate the growth immediately. Even though the conditions were different, all participants had the same statistical information to make an estimate. Results showed the 173% higher estimate from participants who were instructed to use the five steps, compared to participants who estimated immediately.

The study pointed out that many people around the world underestimated the spread of COVID-19. Most would likely perceive that the growth is linear or constantly growing, while only a few would perceive the exponential growth or the staggering rise in cases. Between the two expressions, exponential growth would be scary because the larger the value is, the faster the value grows.



COVID-19 Airborne Transmission Risk

Previously, more than 200 scientists worldwide joined forces and submitted a letter to the World Health Organization (WHO). The letter advised WHO to change its guidelines on COVID-19, specifically include airborne transmission risk. The WHO acknowledged the letter and responded that it does not exclude the transmission risk. But the confirmation that COVID-19 is an airborne disease might cause an alarm. As such, more evidence to solidify the transmission risk is being gathered.

"Calling something airborne changes dramatically the way you treat a patient and the way you treat that problem from a public health perspective. The assumption is that it can get anywhere," explained Glenn Morrison, a professor of environmental sciences and engineering at UNC-Chapel Hill, and one of the 239 scientists who submitted the letter, as quoted by American newspaper News and Record.



Airborne transmission risk refers to tiny respiratory droplets emitted by a person with COVID-19. The droplets have a size smaller than five micrometers. These microdroplets can hover in the air longer than larger droplets. Because of that, microdroplets can travel longer distances. The possibility of catching these droplets is considerably high in enclosed spaces where the air is not refreshed. So, the counter is improving ventilation. But in specific settings like in hospitals, the air-conditioning systems must have the necessary filters to trap the droplets and prevent them from spreading between rooms.

According to Statista, the infection rate per infected person of COVID-19 was from 1.5 to 3.5, as of March 2020. That rate was higher than other life-threatening communicable diseases. Ebola virus disease had a rate from 1.5 to 2.5, the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) had a rate from 0.42 to 0.92, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) had a rate of three, and seasonal influenza had a rate of 1.3.

The revision of the guidelines of COVID-19 is crucial in the openings of businesses and schools. The majority of these openings are held indoors, wherein most rooms are dependent on air-conditioning. If the guidelines include airborne transmission risk, it will motivate ventilation improvements to lower the chance of new COVID-19 clusters.