First of several Kaiser Permanente mask adherence studies released in Philadelphia

Fewer than half of the people observed outdoors in Philadelphia were wearing masks correctly, according to research spearheaded by Deborah Cohen, MD, MPH, of Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research & Evaluation and Philadelphia-based Studio Ludo—a nonprofit focused on building better play through research, design, and advocacy.

The study found that 51% of people on commercial streets, 43% in parks, and 22% on playgrounds in Philadelphia were observed wearing masks properly. Among all observed, an additional 17% had masks on but and either their nose or mouth exposed.

“In the absence of a vaccine, wearing a mask and maintaining a distance from others are the only effective measures to protect ourselves and others from COVID-19 infection,” Dr. Cohen said. “If everyone wore them consistently and properly, we could end this pandemic quickly. By monitoring adherence, we hope to identify the factors that could boost compliance and emphasize that each and every one of us plays a critical role in disease control.”

Dr. Cohen worked with Studio Ludo and the preliminary results are published on its website. The city of Philadelphia issued a press release Tuesday.

Dr. Cohen and her colleagues aim to replicate the study across the United States, including in Southern California.  They are sharing their data collection tools with all interested academics, students, and concerned citizens who are interested in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

“In Southern California, we are beginning to work with local college students in monitoring adherence,” Dr. Cohen said. “We plan to assess whether mask adherence will improve over the next few months”

In Philadelphia, 51% of females were observed wearing a mask properly, while only 37% of males were. Sixty percent of those who appeared to be seniors wore masks properly, while just 21% of teens were observed wearing masks properly. Philadelphians identified as Asian had the highest proper mask use level at 63%, with whites at 47%, and Black and Latinx at 35%.

The disparities in adherence suggest that the information about the risk of exposure is not uniformly appreciated by all groups, Dr. Cohen said. Given that males have more severe consequences from COVID-19 infection than females, a targeted information campaign may be required to motivate greater compliance, she added.

The Philadelphia Study of Mask Adherence and Distancing (SOMAD) study was conducted over the last 3 weeks of August 2020, and it counted only people outdoors. The Studio Ludo team observed more than 4,600 people in 30 outdoor public spaces throughout Philadelphia, including commercial streets, neighborhood parks, and playgrounds. Further data collection will be conducted in September and October 2020. A final report of masking trends in Philadelphia will be released in November 2020.

The research is funded in part by NHLBI # R01HL145145. In addition to Dr. Cohen, contributors to the study design and data collection and analyses include Meghan Talarowski, PLA, ASLA, CPSI, and Olaitan Awomolo, PhD, of Studio Ludo; Thom McKenzie, PhD, professor emeritus of San Diego State University; Dr. Bing Han, PhD, and Stephanie Williamson, BA, of the RAND Corporation.