Zoe Brown 21′, Observes Shoppers Entering Local Businesses and Marks Whether Their Faces are Covered or Uncovered At the Department of Community Health in Walla Walla.

It’s Monday morning just before 9 am, and that means I’m getting comfortable on my couch, grabbing my headphones, and following the Zoom link to my bi-weekly Department Huddle with the Walla Walla County Department of Community Health. 

Once everyone has tuned in, my supervisor, Nikki, introduces the questions of the day to our group of fifteen: “Describe your favorite face mask” and “What are you working on this week?” I remember my first Department Huddle when I’d been surprised that professional organizations like the Department of Health took time for icebreaker questions, but now I’ve grown to appreciate the ritual, which helps me connect to the co-workers I only get to see in their tiny zoom screens. The Department of Health models the importance of having a strong team that can rely on each other. While sometimes the questions of the day are light-hearted, on days when new case counts of Covid-19 are high, it’s a time when our team can support each other through worries about the virus, complicated hotline questions, and frustrations about limited community mask use.  

Today, conversation is light, and I have good news. Nikki calls on me, and after describing my favorite mask (white with black and gold detailing, formerly part of a curtain), I say, “Today I’m working on consolidating the last of my mask observation data. At all four locations yesterday, ninety percent of shoppers were wearing masks!”

The mask observation data collection has been my biggest project this summer. Twice a week, I spend four hours observing shoppers entering local businesses and mark whether their faces are covered or uncovered on my data sheet. At the beginning of the summer, only 34% of people in Walla Walla’s downtown were wearing face masks into stores, but that number has increased by 63%, and now 97% of shoppers are wearing masks. 

Amy, the Department of Health’s epidemiologist, sends me readings on the psychological theories behind public health behavior changes and explains that the data I’ve collected is exciting and unusual. The public has historically taken longer to adopt widespread behavior changes pushed by public health departments, such as wearing seatbelts. The fact that I’ve seen such a change in mask wearing in just a month’s time is surprising and encouraging given the importance of collective action to protect our community from the virus. 

As a rising senior psychology major, this summer’s project has given me practice conducting observational research, a type of psychological research I’d previously only encountered in the pages of Wendy Schweigert’s Research Methods in Psychology, which I read in class at Whitman and again perused for tips at the beginning of my project. The chance to get out “into the field” and collect data in a new way has been an exciting one, even if the hours of counting masks can get a little tedious without a good audiobook. 

For the rest of the summer, I’ll be analyzing the data I’ve collected and connecting it to some of the psychology theories I’ve read about at Amy’s direction in the form of a final paper. Writing a psychology research paper from beginning to end is a great mental warm-up before beginning my thesis project next year, which will follow a similar format even if it focuses on experimental instead of observational data. 

After I share my findings at the Department Huddle, my colleagues smile over Zoom: we all need some good news as case counts continue to rise. Maybe the higher rates of mask wearing will help to bring down the number of Covid cases in the area. 

Things in the time of the coronavirus are unpredictable, but I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be part of the hard work that the Department of Health is doing to keep the community healthy in these unprecedented circumstances. 

Experiences like Zoe’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Mitzy Rodriguez

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