Variable human behaviors can affect COVID-19 risk, resilience and recovery

Powerpoint slide with John Ruiz
By tailoring public health messages to individual circumstances and motivations, we might be able to decrease disease risk and promote overall public well-being.
Dr. Brittany Uhlorn, BIO5 Institute

As dynamic human beings, our behaviors change daily. Ever-changing psychosocial factors – those influenced by both societal pressures and individual thought – have influenced various aspects of the pandemic, from physical outcome to vaccine efficacy and more. 

On June 21, Dr. John Ruiz, associate professor of psychology and member of the BIO5 Institute at UArizona, discussed the “very large elephant in the room” during a Precision Wellness in the Time of COVID-19 lecture as part of The Precision Nutrition & Wellness Initiative (PNWI) at BIO5. According to Ruiz, that ‘elephant’ is the psychology that influences our behaviors and impacts COVID-19 risk, resiliency and recovery. 

Various psychosocial factors influence adherence to early interventions like mask-wearing and social distancing. While these solutions may seem simple, getting people to follow the guidelines “has not been rocket science, but something incredibly harder” because of the dynamic nature of a human being – who is constantly changing their interests and motivations to do certain things. 

The Health Belief Model reasons that if one perceives a threat of disease, they are more likely to change their behavior. In the face of potentially severe illness, it seems easy in principle to convince someone to wear a mask, however, this model does not hold well for a pandemic that asks people to change their behaviors for a year and a half. 

Besides the length of the pandemic, barriers to mask-wearing include age, politics, medical problems, and the belief that one is not at risk for disease. Ruiz suggested several behavioral factors underlie the solutions to these obstacles. 

“To combat mask and vaccine hesitancy, we’ve got to find the motivation that drives an individual to engage and allows them to move forward,” said Ruiz. 

Understanding how our habits affect the transmission process is essential to devising intervention strategies – “behavioral quarantining,” as Ruiz refers to it. 

To address our unique and sometimes problematic behaviors, decrease risk, and increase survival, Ruiz stressed that scientists, and health care professionals and public health advocates need to individually tailor messages related toof mitigation measures, intervention and vaccination.

Fear and logic seem to work for 50% of the population, while others are affected by cultural or contextual adaptations, the cost to benefit ratio, social trends, political climate and self-efficacy. According to Ruiz, a “there is no magic bullet” that can address the varying reasons why people choose to not wear a mask. Instead, we need to use “different strokes for different folks” to increase adherence and decrease transmission of disease.

Additionally, vaccine hesitancy is like the lack of intervention compliance - it’s rooted in fears about safety, mistrust of the government, and those who wish to “wait and see” how the events unfold. Again, Ruiz stressed that because the solution to each individual’s hesitation is different, diverse strategies are needed to increase vaccination rates. 

Ruiz cited several examples of targeted campaigns, such as college scholarships, lottery entries, concert tickets, and free food – all exclusively for those with a completed vaccination card. 

Lastly, Ruiz outlined three main behaviors that affect vaccine efficacy: sleep, stress, and mood. 

Quality sleep, particularly within 10 days pre- and post-vaccination, was found to be important for antibody production in response to vaccination, as was low stress and positive mood. 

Together, these factors indicate how powerful our behaviors are in influencing both the state of the pandemic and our individual health. 

Ruiz’s lecture is part of a five-symposia series hosted by the BIO5 Institute and The Precision Nutrition & Wellness Initiative (PNWI). Please visit the PNWI website to learn more and watch previous event recordings. 

About the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute
The BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona connects and mobilizes top researchers in agriculture, engineering, biomedicine, pharmacy, basic science, and computational science to find creative solutions to humanity’s most pressing health and environmental challenges. Since 2001, this interdisciplinary approach has been an international model of how to conduct collaborative research, and has resulted in disease prevention strategies, promising new therapies, innovative diagnostics and devices, and improved food sustainability.