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Social Science and COVID-19

Much media attention on SARS CoV-2 and COVID-19 is focused on a large set of biomedical issues. What exactly are the mechanisms by which the virus penetrates the human cells, once the body is exposed? What are the vectors of transmission? How is the virus mutating over time?

In the absence of a vaccine, however, much of the public health focus has been on identifying human behaviors that decrease or increase the likelihood of infection. This led to the ubiquitous guidance of face coverings, physical distancing, and hand-washing. Recent findings of aerosolized transmission have increased concern about ventilation of indoor rooms.

Given the focus on human behavior as a tool to reduce the spread of the pandemic, there has been a spur of attention from decision-makers on what knowledge about human behavior exists in the nonbiomedical disciplines.

This has become a moment when the social and behavioral sciences can contribute in real ways to a most pressing problem facing humankind.

Toward that end, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, funded by the National Science Foundation has launched SEAN, the Societal Experts Action Network. (Admittedly, the desire for a cute acronym overwhelmed the goal of an appropriate multi-worded title.)  Full disclosure; I am affiliated with the Network.

SEAN  is a coalition of social scientists and social science research organizations around the country who have pledged to translate social science knowledge into practice guidance for decision-makers.

The idea type of a decision maker is someone working at the city or county level. They could be public health officials in local agencies; they could be city managers of small communities. They have the burden of tracking the course of the epidemic in their area and making decisions about public awareness campaigns, of regulatory interventions, of strategies to help institutions (like jails and nursing homes), and a host of other real problems. Most work with limited budgets; most of them have never dealt with a public health problem of this magnitude.

SEAN works by first learning of real questions plaguing such decision-makers. Then it assembles a quick-strike group of social scientists who have studied behavioral issues connected to the question. The price of admission for the social scientists is that they are committed to providing real guidance to the decision-maker. (Every question could be the subject of more research to discover a more fine-tuned answer, but the answers are needed immediately.)

The vehicle for answers is sometimes a “Rapid Expert Consultation” document, distributed in print and web versions. For example, the first attempted to help local officials who were puzzled about the diverse indicators of the spread of the disease. There are counts of confirmed cases, hospitalizations, emergency department visits, COVID-19 deaths, excess deaths over the prior year period, percentage of tests that are positive, and prevalence rates from representative surveys. How is a local official to deal with differences among these? This question was answered by a set of statisticians, epidemiologists, and public health scholars. This document tried to give pros and cons of different indicators, so a more sophisticated use of multiple indicators could be used in making judgments.

The second question concerned how could diverse populations be encouraged to follow the public health guidance of face coverings, physical distancing, and hand washing. That work assembled a set of social and cognitive psychologists, who study what motivates people to adopt new behaviors and how those behaviors can become habitual.

The third question concerned how the contact tracing protocols can be improved by insights from the field of survey methodology. If the newly positive person fails to identify their contacts or their contacts cannot be successfully notified, the tracing effort fails. If those persons with many contacts disproportionately tend not be cooperative, then the effectiveness of the contact tracing is limited.  This report offered direct guidance to improve contact tracing in practical ways.

The social sciences discover knowledge of human behaviors that can offer practical solutions to real problems facing the world. The SEAN coalition can, hopefully, demonstrate that to larger groups of decision-makers, for the benefit of all.

One thought on “Social Science and COVID-19

  1. Will the vaccine really be found? When we examine past major epidemics, we know that no vaccine was found and millions of people died because of it. In the epidemics lasting an average of 2 years, people died, but the vaccine was not found. Do you think the time to find a vaccine for Covid virus could be less than 2 years?

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