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Tips for conducting in-person data collection during the COVID-19 pandemic

Enumerator Nicholas Momanyi interviewing John Omonyo in Bungoma County, Kenya. ©Winfred Kananu/IDinsight

Collecting primary data usually has its own challenges ranging from community entry, unfavorable weather conditions and even managing field team dynamics. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more challenging for researchers to conduct in-person data collection. IDinsight recently conducted its first in-person data collection since the pandemic started. It was also the first project where we were testing and improving the set Covid-19 protocols. The exercise was conducted between June and August 2021 in Western Kenya and Eastern Uganda where we surveyed over 10,000 households across 482 villages. This required some adjustments in response to the prevailing COVID-19 crisis. In this blog post, IDinsight shares 5 tips that worked for us when conducting fieldwork during this COVID-19 period and some recommendations that other teams preparing for data collection should consider.

  • Plan ahead for different COVID scenarios, and draft a budget that assumes the worst.

Relative to surveys conducted prior to the pandemic, more planning is required to ensure the success of fieldwork conducted during the COVID-19 period. More scenario planning, especially on what to do in case of positive COVID-19 cases within the field team, is important to ensure nothing finds the team off-guard. For us, we put together a decision tree, shown in the images below, before heading out to the field as a guideline on the next action step for every scenario relating to COVID-19 for both the field team and the respondents. For example, if a teammate presents any of the severe COVID-19 symptoms, like a fever or loss of taste and smell, we would have them take a test. In other cases, like if they just had a headache, we would recommend that they isolate as we monitor the symptoms over the next few days to determine whether a test would be necessary. This was very helpful when it came to managing the team and ensuring their safety and that of the respondents. Identifying hospitals that offer COVID-19 testing beforehand, as well as getting in touch with local health officials and coming up with a plan to get the team treatment if needed also proved to be very beneficial.

Figure 1: COVID-19 decision tree definitions

Figure 2: COVID-19 decision tree for enumerators

Figure 3: COVID-19 decision tree for respondents

Surveying during the pandemic also requires an extra budget for safety to be maintained. This calls for planning ahead and making the necessary provisions with funders on how to cover the extra costs relating to minimizing the spread of the virus. We worked with the Village Enterprise Working Group to set aside a contingency fund, which was ultimately funded by one of the program outcome payers, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). This fund would cover both planned COVID-19 expenses, like testing at the start of data collection and purchasing plenty of PPE, as well as unplanned costs, such as those associated with teammates testing positive for COVID-19. For example, we covered accommodation costs, per diems, and salary payment for time spent in quarantine by any field staff. All these extra expenses mean fieldwork is now more expensive and anyone planning to roll out any data collection exercise must find a way to cover these costs.

  • Recruit an experienced field team and include COVID-19 awareness/mitigation training.

The success of any engagement is dependent on the staff working on it, and hiring experienced professionals is the first step in the right direction. Due to the uncertainties introduced by COVID-19, we focused our efforts on hiring a local field team from the areas we were working in because of the differences in COVID burden across regions. Recruiting locally, especially in Uganda, helped us manage the regional lockdown unpredictabilities by minimizing the need for staff to move from one district to another. This also made respondents less afraid of enumerators bringing in COVID from outside, once they learned that the teams were from the surrounding area, and generally helped to build rapport. 

After hiring a great team, the next step is to equip them with the necessary skills and knowledge needed for them to perform their duties. We held rigorous training on survey administration and understanding the survey tool to prepare our team to deliver quality work. We included a session on COVID-19 and our protocols during the training to make sure our team understood all of the information about the spread of COVID-19 and the measures we had put in place to ensure a safe exercise. We were keen to help them understand the consequences of risky activities outside of working hours, and how their choices could affect the health and safety of their colleagues, and respondents. Fieldwork is generally quite challenging during this COVID period but with a well-trained and experienced team,  it is doable.

Enumerators seated in a socially distanced manner and wearing their masks during training in Uganda.  ©Amongin Irene/IDinsight Supervisor
  • Have a comprehensive COVID-19 protocol to be adhered to by both the field team and respondents to ensure a safe exercise.

It is important to put together a COVID-19 protocol that each team member must adhere to. IDinsight had prepared a protocol in advance that would be followed by any team returning to in-person data collection. This protocol included:

  • A mandatory COVID-19 test for the full team, including drivers before beginning the exercise. We used a private lab that collected samples of the team for testing to reduce transmission risk by minimizing interactions between the team and other people seeking medical services from the hospital. Before testing, we had the team quarantine for a few days to increase the reliability of the results, and we encouraged them to avoid any kind of gatherings between themselves before the results were out. This worked well to ensure the virus did not spread within the team in case anyone tested positive. 
  • In addition to testing the team, we also divided them into sub-groups and provided accommodation for each group in different hotels. We then had separate vehicles transporting each team to the villages. The aim of doing this was to reduce the risk of the virus spreading across the entire team in the unfortunate event that one person tested positive during the course of data collection.
  • During interviews, we provided surgical masks to be worn by the enumerator and respondent, they sanitized before and after the survey and observed social distancing by maintaining a 2m distance. 
  • The interviews were conducted outdoors. However, we recognized that it was not realistic to always conduct surveys outside, like when it is raining heavily. We made an exception to conduct surveys inside if the room was well ventilated, the door and window remained open, and if there was no one else taking shelter from the rain inside the house. The other option was for enumerators to wait for the rain to subside and then return to complete the survey. 
  • To monitor the COVID-19 situation within the team and during the surveys, we had a series of COVID-19 screening questions for both field staff and respondents. This was important because it informed decisions on whether the staff were cleared to go to the field and also ensured it was safe to conduct the surveys. As a further step, we advise reducing the length of the survey to just the critical questions to avoid long exposure during interviews. 

Communicating clear guidelines to be followed by field staff while out in the field is a great way of sharing standard expectations, which are key to a successful data collection exercise during this period.

  • Evaluate the team regularly on adherence to COVID-19 protocols and set preventive measures to keep everyone accountable.

Every team member had the responsibility of adhering to the set preventive measures both when conducting surveys and outside working hours. To ensure everyone was complying with these guidelines, we incorporated check questions on COVID-19 protocols into our data quality checks system:

  • Spotcheck form: This is the form supervisors use to assess whether the enumerators are conducting the surveys as expected and in this case, also checked if they were following the COVID-19 protocols. We included questions where the supervisors would report whether the enumerator sanitized before starting the interview and if they ensured respondents were wearing masks correctly. We also used the form to verify whether social distancing was observed during the interview and if it was conducted outdoors as expected.  
  • Phone backchecks: As a further step to verify this, we used phone backchecks where we later called the respondents to ask how the enumerator conducted the survey, and if they complied with our set COVID-19 protocols. We would follow up individually with any member of the team flagged for not adhering to the protocol. 

Preparing and sharing the COVID-19 protocol is only one step; ensuring the team is implementing it accordingly is even a more crucial step to ensuring a safe data collection exercise during this period.

  • Be prepared to handle positive & suspected COVID-19 cases within the field team 

When planning for fieldwork during this period, it is important to recognize that having positive COVID-19 cases within the team is probable. Teams can prepare for such scenarios which also helps the team feel safe and know that their health is valued. It is also important to put in place systems that incentivize field teams to alert the project coordinators of COVID infection, symptoms, or exposure. When we were starting data collection, we had the entire team tested and unfortunately, a total of ten teammates tested positive across both countries. Fortunately, we had ensured that there were no gatherings among the team before results were out. Even so, if anyone who is part of the team tests positive, it is important to do contact tracing. This would ensure that anyone who may have been exposed is isolated to prevent the risk of the spread of the virus to the entire team. It is also key to decide in advance how to handle positive or suspected cases if this happens during the course of data collection:

  • We recommend having a health professional as part of the project team going out for fieldwork. We found this to be valuable as we relied on the expertise of our project director, who is a public health specialist, when it came to making some decisions on how to handle the situation, and how to plan for those isolating rejoining the team. 
  • We were fortunate to receive contingency funding from FCDO that covered COVID-19 related expenses until the isolating staff was cleared to go back to the field. They were still paid if they were sick so no one was disincentivized to report their condition/exposure, which helped us contain the spread of the virus within the team.
  • Another critical thing to bear in mind is dynamics around those in isolation rejoining the team. We had a discussion with the entire team and gave them an opportunity to express any concerns they had in regards to those quarantining rejoining the team and explained exactly how that would be done. This really helped to avoid stigma and have a smooth transition as the rest rejoined the team. It is the responsibility of project teams to prioritize the safety of those they work with and at the same time, take care of their own well-being.

We believe that with proper planning and adherence to the set COVID-19 preventive measures, in-person data collection is viable and can run smoothly.