CATSS in a Time of Pandemic

We’re all working from home. Laboratory research in CATSS, and at the University at large, has ground to a halt. So how is your research lab functioning during the pandemic?

We’d love to hear your strategies and ways of coping to keep your research pursuits alive. Email [email protected] and fill us in!

Outside the lab, what about all the people living with the sensory losses that help define our research goals?

Here are a couple of issues the pandemic has raised that are on our minds here at CATSS.

The effects of increased social isolation during the pandemic. Co-PIs Peggy Nelson (SLHS) and Gordon Legge (PSY) are leading a CATSS-sponsored study investigating the social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on seniors with sensory disabilities.

Groups of older adults with hearing loss or low vision, as well as control subjects with normal sensory function, are participating in this longitudinal study that aims to track the status of various types of personal social interactions over time, beginning with a retrospective survey, and then with monthly or bimonthly interviews to follow throughout the pandemic. Data such as average number of daily social contacts and hours spent alone (as well as the participant’s satisfaction with those levels of social engagement) are collected via phone or Zoom interviews by an interdisciplinary team of doctoral students and academic staff.

Other practical issues of pandemic living for individuals with hearing loss. The use of cloth facemasks in public places is becoming ubiquitous. People with hearing loss struggle with the difficulties of communicating with people wearing facemasks on several fronts:

  • The low-pass filtering properties of facemasks. A study by Goldin et al., referenced in the April 2020 issue of Hearing Review, confirmed that the facemasks they tested function as low-pass acoustic filters, attenuating the high frequencies (at and above 2000 Hz) to a degree that would be expected to adversely affect speech recognition
  • The absence of visual cues for both lipreading and interpreting mood and emotional cues

Further, the increased distance from talkers with social distancing, 6 feet or more which is greater than the ideal conversational distance of 3-5 ft, results in an overall attenuation of conversational speech.

Another issue for hearing aid users: cloth facemasks with elastic loops placed around the ears can easily flip hearing aids off.

Concerns of blind and low-vision individuals. While this group is not as affected by the use of facemasks, they face other challenges.

  • Grocery shopping requires lots of handling and holding items close to eyes to read labels, considered unsafe for guarding against transmission of the virus
  • Due to social distancing and stay-at-home orders, help from volunteers may not be routine anymore

Larger existential concerns of the deaf-blind. A recent article highlighted the fears of those with sensory deficits during the pandemic: “I worry that, if we ever become sick, our lives will be deemed less worthy of saving than the ones who are more ‘abled’.”

Yes, in addition to the human costs, the pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench into human subject research everywhere. Here at CATSS, we are hopeful that we will be able to resume our research before too long -- perhaps in new and novel ways -- and in the meantime, we are committed to investigating other issues that have arisen from the pandemic itself.