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A vast majority of people in the United States say they will continue to wear masks and take other precautions after the COVID-19 pandemic eases. Guido Mieth/Getty Images
  • In a new survey, a majority of people in the United States indicated they will continue COVID-19 safety protocols, such as wearing masks and keeping physical distance, even after the pandemic eases.
  • A majority also plans to make adjustments at their place of employment.
  • Experts say the survey represents a good trend, but they note a number of people may revert to previous behaviors once they think the pandemic has ended.

Pandemic precautions are getting old, but they’re effective.

That may be why many people in the United States plan to continue them after the threat of COVID-19 eases up.

At least that’s how they felt in January when surveyed by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

The national survey of more than 2,000 people found that most plan to continue with precautions such as hand hygiene, avoiding crowds, and wearing a mask in public.

“There’s reason to be optimistic about the results in a general sense,” said Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, Wexner’s chief quality and patient safety officer.

“The survey represents people’s best intentions right now, but people have a tendency to regress a bit from intent,” he told Healthline.

“In other cultures, wearing masks in densely populated urban centers has been a matter of daily life for a long time,” Gonsenhauser said.

There’s been some reluctance to accept mask wearing in the United States. But of those surveyed, 72 percent said they’ll continue wearing a mask in public after the pandemic.

“It will be interesting to see if the lessons learned from this experience will apply to other areas,” Gonsenhauser said.

“People gloss over that in a typical year we lose 50,000 to 70,000 people to influenza. That’s not the case this year due to masking. We’ve hit a 130-year low,” he said.

“Will people process this and come to recognize that there’s a lot of opportunity to impact life outside COVID-19 with the same measures? What would a future without significant flu look like in terms of a decrease in lost lives, business productivity, and healthcare savings?” he said.

Gonsenhauser noted that over time, people do tend to revert to ingrained behaviors. It may be that a small subset will continue wearing masks in crowds.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has long advocated for proper handwashing to help prevent spread of disease.

It’s a habit that may have finally taken hold due to COVID-19. In the survey, 90 percent of respondents said they’ll wash or sanitize their hands more frequently post-pandemic.

Dr. Charles Bailey is medical director for infection prevention at Providence St. Joseph Hospital and Providence Mission Hospital in Southern California.

Bailey told Healthline that handwashing and respiratory etiquette are changes we should be incorporating into our lives.

“Hand hygiene and covering your cough with your elbow, not your hand, are behaviors that hopefully catch on. Not washing hands especially is an unrecognized factor in COVID-19 spread,” he said.

Of those surveyed:

  • 80 percent want to continue avoiding crowds
  • 76 percent will avoid shaking hands, hugging, and embracing others

“Again, people have the best intentions during this time while there’s still ongoing trauma of experiencing the pandemic,” Gonsenhauser said.

“We have a tendency in these moments for grand perceptions of how it will fundamentally reshape the nature of our culture and how we behave in social situations. In a few years, or even months, things may revert back to normal,” he said.

Shaking hands is part of American culture, and Bailey thinks it may make a comeback.

“Some will do elbow bumps or foot taps, but most will get back to shaking hands. There are risks in life. A totally risk-free existence is not very worthwhile, and people recognize that,” Bailey said.

During the pandemic, the practice of blowing out the candles on a birthday cake is another thing that has fallen out of favor. Bailey suggested many people will get back to that as well.

“I don’t see it disappearing in the majority of families, especially with family and close friends, when people are not obviously ill. The pendulum will swing pack toward pre-COVID normalcy to the extent it can for those individuals who have been tainted with lifelong COVID or in a germophobic situation. Some will never be the same,” Bailey added.

In the survey, 73 percent of respondents said they plan to stay home when sick.

While that’s always been sound practice, many jobs in the United States don’t provide paid sick leave.

“This is less of a problem in the upper income bracket. People in lower socioeconomic brackets have a different set of challenges in staying home from work,” Gonsenhauser said.

“It’s part of what we’ve seen all along and is continuing to drive disparities in outcomes due to the flexibility to stay home when sick,” he said.

Gonsenhauser believes employers have a responsibility to ensure a safe work environment, noting that having employees who feel compelled to go to work when sick is also bad for the bottom line.

“There’s a responsibility on both sides that is coming to the forefront and, hopefully, will make a difference in the future,” Gonsenhauser said.

Bailey said that workplaces will have to make adjustments.

“Some companies can be more efficient with part of the workforce off-site,” Bailey said. “They can make changes in terms of more spread-out workspaces and availability of hand hygiene to attract workers back to the workplace. Companies that can will probably retain more people.”

“Businesses will have a vested interest in following some type of COVID-19-era practices to draw in customers who need to feel comfortable, and also to avoid being caught by surprise by the next flare-up and paying the consequences again with draconian government measures in place,” Bailey added.

When comparing today to the 1918 flu pandemic, Gonsenhauser said we’ve already moved through some parallels in initial de-escalation of precautions.

One big difference between then and now is that we have vaccines.

“They didn’t, and that will change what the next phase of this looks like. Certainly, we’re in a race against variants that are more transmissible. At the point we start to see new cases outpacing the vaccine, that will be trouble and will extend the pandemic,” Gonsenhauser said.

“There’s no reason to think that will happen, but the behaviors we engage in over the next handful of months will determine how long this lasts,” he said.

So, how do you know when a pandemic is over?

You don’t. At least not in real time. It’s something that can’t be defined other than in retrospect, according to Bailey.

“Maybe in 5 years we can say the pandemic seems to have ended in the fall of 2021 or spring of 2022. It’s not obvious because it’s something that goes through cycles. So, we just don’t know,” he explained.

It’s that uncertainty, Bailey said, that creates a variety of behaviors based on individual comfort zones.

One crucial factor is communication.

“It’s an iffy proposition if there’s not consistent messaging or it’s not consistently received by all people,” Bailey said.

“To the extent that somebody believes it’s over and we can close the books on COVID-19, they’re more likely to get back to pre-COVID-19 normal. Those that have lingering doubt that it’s really gone will be more likely to continue with risk mitigation,” Bailey said.

Change may come more quickly than we may presume at this point, Gonsenhauser said.

“There may be a growing resistance to continuing precaution measures once the numbers look more manageable. So many people are so burned out and so ready,” he continued.

Bailey suggested there’ll be a variety of behaviors, none of which are wrong.

“Some may look at the end of COVID-19 as a reason to adapt a ‘carpe diem’ philosophy until they have some event happen to make them realize that’s not wise. Some will maintain pretty much as before. Others will lead a ‘subterranean existence’ as a result of their experience,” he continued.

But it will be a defined era, Bailey said.

“I hope people have been able to retain some optimism through this, and that it can help guide their future life to be happier than it might be if they can’t put the COVID-19 era behind them,” he added.