5 Questions with COVID Researchers: Samantha Penta, University at Albany

This post is part of the series 5 Questions with COVID Researchers. Hear from researchers across the Northeast United States about how they are working to mitigate the widespread impacts of COVID-19, and learn about opportunities for cross-disciplinary and cross-sector collaboration that could enable further progress in the fight against the pandemic. To learn more about COVID-related research, keep updated with virtual events and funding opportunities, and access other resources including datasets and guides, visit the COVID Information Commons. If you would like to be featured in this series, please email Katie Naum and Helen Yang.

Guest post by Dr. Samantha Penta, Assistant Professor in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at University at Albany, and Principal Investigator on NSF Award #2028412, “A Multi-Wave Study of Risk Perception, Information Seeking, and Protective Action in COVID-19.”

What is the problem you are trying to solve, and how will you and your team address it?

People’s ability to understand and personalize threats are key in getting them to adopt protective behaviors. COVID-19 presents a serious threat to health. However, unlike threats from other kinds of hazards, the virus does not offer any visible indication of its threat or presence. Compared to the physical damage inflicted by a flood or a tornado, COVID-19 presents an invisible threat. Extended exposure to the virus threat and constantly changing environments may further complicate the interpretation of the built and social environments, formulation of risk perceptions, and ultimately the adoption of protective behaviors that may protect individual health and slow the spread of COVID-19. We address these problems through our research by identifying: (1) what cues people use when there are no visible environmental cues, and (2) by examining changes over time as a novel event unfolds. 

What data are you working with? How will it be used?

We are conducting a multiple cross-sectional design survey of adults from three states: New York, Washington, and Louisiana. We are surveying a quota-based sample of participants in each state for a total of 700-900 participants in each wave of the study. These three states are located in different geographic regions of the United States, offering an opportunity to examine regional policy differences over time. This survey asks participants about cues they witness in their environments (environmental cues) and from other people around them (social cues), their perceptions of COVID-19 risk, whether they are engaging in a series of social distancing and hygiene-related protective actions, and perceptions of those protective actions. Since the ongoing spread of COVID-19 presents a continually evolving risk context in which people are making decisions, we adopted a multiple cross-sectional design. Twelve waves of the survey will be completed at approximately monthly intervals in order to capture changing risk perceptions and behavioral responses at the state level. Alongside the survey, we are collecting print news media at the national level and for each state of interest, and Twitter data from important state, national, and international sources. Data collection is currently in progress. 

Is your team seeking collaborators, subject matter experts, or other resources that you’d like to put a call out for?

We would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with social scientists and data scientists to work with the multiple cross-sectional questionnaire dataset and large social media dataset. In particular, we are interested in collaborators familiar with statistical analyses using multiple waves of data or with python coding. 

How does this work contribute to the fight against the pandemic?

Human behavior is key in stopping the spread of COVID-19. Even after a vaccine becomes available, human behaviors will determine how many people become infected with COVID-19. Better understanding what protective actions people are (and are not) engaging in and the reasons behind those behaviors can inform future messaging and protective action guidance. 

Where can people learn more about your progress?

The PI of the project, Dr. Samantha Penta, will be doing a lightning talk as a part of the COVID Information Commons lightning talk series on Friday, October 16. She can also be reached by email at spenta@albany.edu

Samantha Penta is an Assistant Professor of Emergency Preparedness in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at University at Albany.