Any Saskatchewan adult who has access to a smartphone or computer with internet access can join the study, which will be open between June and October 2021. Photo: Myrna MacDonald.

Smartphone survey to collect Saskatchewan residents’ perception of COVID-19

Saskatchewan residents can give their input about the province’s public health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic by using their smartphones to respond to a series of five-minute surveys.

Dr. Patrick Seitzinger is a physician and USask School of Public Health graduate. Submitted photo.

It’s part of a new study launched by University of Saskatchewan (USask) researchers who want to understand people’s thoughts about the effectiveness of public health messaging and the perceived risk of COVID-19 in their lives over the next four months.

“We’re really trying to capture the public's voice and their viewpoints when it comes to the COVID-19 outbreak. As public health researchers and practitioners, we aim to create public health messages and guidelines that are evidence based. The other big piece is the public's understanding — making sure that our messaging isn't just accurate, but that it's also effective,” says Dr. Patrick Seitzinger (MD, MPH), a physician and graduate from the USask School of Public Health and one of the four researchers involved in the project.

“This study is about trying to capture that second piece by collecting data on the perspectives, viewpoints and behaviours of the public to see if the evolving strategies are effective and how they can be improved.”

Dr. Jenny Basran (MD) of the USask College of Medicine is leading the multidisciplinary study. In addition to Seitzinger and Basran, the team includes Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) researcher Dr. Cheryl Waldner (DVM, PhD) and Dr. Nathaniel Osgood (PhD) of the USask College of Arts and Science’s Department of Computer Science.

This research project is leveraging USask’s expertise in public health and disease modelling. Results will help to guide the province’s public health strategies for the COVID-19 pandemic as well as for future outbreaks.

Dr. Cheryl Waldner: “The location information can provide a lot of context about the risk of disease spread without being invasive. It is not about tracking individuals and seeing where each individual is going — it’s about how population movement is changing over time.”

The project is designed to be easy and convenient for participants who can fill in the five-minute surveys whenever they have time. People can access the survey through the Ethica smartphone app, an end-to-end research platform that was created by members of Osgood’s computer science team.

This study is unique in that it combines self-reporting surveys and GPS data into one project, says Seitzinger. If users enable the location data feature, the GPS data will help researchers better understand trends among the population and their patterns of mobility across the province.

“The location information can provide a lot of context about the risk of disease spread without being invasive,” says Waldner. “It is not about tracking individuals and seeing where each individual is going — it’s about how population movement is changing over time.”

While Waldner primarily studies antimicrobial resistance, she has a background in public health and has worked on infectious disease modelling for the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic as well as for the current COVID-19 pandemic.

“I work in a lot of different areas, but the theme that ties all of it together is tools to inform decision-making around population health,” says Waldner. In a previous project, she and Seitzinger collaborated with Osgood to adapt the smartphone tool for studying foodborne infectious disease in Saskatchewan.

With participants' responses to the online questions, researchers can use the information to create predictive models and to inform public health strategies and messaging. Although USask researchers are conducting this project independently, they plan to share their findings with Saskatchewan’s public health practitioners.

“I realize that the viewpoints of the public are diverse,” says Seitzinger. “To me, it's really necessary to understand what's going on in the minds of the people across Saskatchewan so that we can make sure that our public health strategies align with the specific needs of the population.”

The study is open to adult participants in Saskatchewan who have access to a smartphone or computer with internet access. As a first step, participants will complete one very short survey per day for the first five days of the study to collect baseline information on risk perceptions, behaviours and knowledge about COVID-19.

In subsequent weeks, participants will complete two mini-surveys that will gauge any changes in mask use practices, social contacts and viewpoints on COVID-19 vaccination. If participants experience COVID-related symptoms, the surveys will also seek to understand the respondents’ experience with the illness and any long-term effects on their health.

At any point during the study, participants can decide not to answer a questionnaire without affecting their status in the project. They’re also free to withdraw from the study at any point.

The researchers plan to publish their findings in an academic journal and share their results with Saskatchewan residents. The project is financially supported by USask.

Visit the research project’s web site for more information and to learn how to participate in the study.  
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