The initial spread of COVID-19 rocked the world and challenged society to confront an unprecedented pandemic. As doctors and researchers urgently work to better understand the virus today, public health officials must relay critical information to communities in real time in order to contain it in the near future.
During a rapidly unfolding crisis like this one, it’s imperative that officials have access to reliable, accurate, and up-to-date data on public attitudes in order to understand how those attitudes drive certain behaviors—which, in turn, directly inform engagement and policy decisions.
Our company, ICF, has been closely monitoring public attitudes and behaviors around COVID-19 since March. Over that time, we have focused efforts around quantifying the economic, financial, and health impacts that Americans are experiencing in real time. Based on the findings we have collected so far, here are some core learnings that public health officials can apply to this pandemic, and future public health crises.
Communicate through trusted sources
Information about the spread of COVID-19 has been disseminated to Americans through federal and state or local officials, as well as through the news media. In late March, on the heels of the outbreak officially being declared a global pandemic, our study found that Americans expressed different degrees of trust in the information they received from different sources.
According to our data from March, Americans were listening to, and placing a great deal more trust in, public health experts (87%) compared to state and local government (78%), federal government (63%), and news media (46%). This remained consistent in April. Further, Americans’ trust in the CDC was high in March (86%), dipping only slightly in April (82%).
This sentiment is also reflected in a recent Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll, which found that Americans most trust the information about COVID-19 that they receive from the CDC and healthcare providers.
As such, entities relaying critical pandemic developments and response recommendations to the American public should make it abundantly clear that the information came directly from public health experts when possible.
Bring information home to the individual level
Our data also indicated that Americans were aware of—and took seriously—the threat of COVID-19 to the health of the U.S. population, the economy, and their own communities by the end of March—the crucial first month of COVID-19 being declared a national emergency. However, findings revealed that fewer Americans seemed to feel the contagion was a direct, personal concern.
Specifically, results showed that a majority (73%) of Americans thought the coronavirus was a real threat to the country. However, when asked how likely it was that they would personally contract the virus, only 39% said they were likely or somewhat likely to get it. Strikingly, that’s in spite of the fact that nearly half of respondents indicated they have an underlying medical condition (e.g., heart disease, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD).
Given the prevalence of this optimism bias, it’s essential that any communications that public health officials put out are targeted to the individual level, helping individuals understand and feel that the issue at hand is a personal threat to themselves and their family, rather than an abstract issue facing the country.
Make decisions that prioritize health over the economy
Difficult conversations around when, and how, to reopen the economy continue at the federal, state, and local levels across the country. However, our study found that Americans overwhelmingly support public health interests over economic interests, despite immediate and longer-term impacts to personal employment.
According to findings recorded at the end of March, nearly 4 in 5 Americans (79%) reported that public health benefits are more important than economic costs. Interestingly, Americans who reported losing their jobs (permanently and temporarily) were even more likely to state that public health benefits are more important than economic costs.
Public support for government mitigation measures was high in March as well. A majority of Americans felt it was very important to prohibit gatherings of 10 or more people (63%), stay three to six feet away from others (78%), and self-quarantine if exposed to COVID-19 (88%). This remained consistent in April.
A recent survey led by researchers from Harvard Kennedy School, Northeastern University, and Rutgers University supports this trend as well. The study found a majority of people in the U.S. want to continue physical distancing measures, even as the federal government and some state governors are pushing to reopen the economy.
These public attitudes should inform citizen engagement strategies as policy makers face tough economic decisions in the weeks and months ahead. Public officials should consider the potential health impacts that Americans are concerned about and assure the public that their best interests are central to the country’s next phase of pandemic response.
Be transparent about the ongoing risks
At the end of March, most Americans (81%) believed that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic was yet to come—and, according to public health experts, they were right.
By mid-April, while the majority of respondents still believed that the worst was yet to come with the coronavirus (63%), the proportion who thought the worst was behind us increased from 12% in late March to 31%.
As hospitalization numbers begin to decrease in many states, it may be natural for increasingly more citizens to perceive that the worst is behind them. Some may go even as far as neglecting the possibility of a resurgence, which experts including CDC Director Robert Redfield have warned could pose a very real threat.
When public beliefs about the state of health crises are at odds with what science says, the implications can be dangerous, and even deadly. As such, it’s very important that public health officials ensure their communications adequately acknowledge the reality of ongoing risks and outline protective steps citizens should take to maintain fragile progress, while still conveying a positive tone to reflect the advancements that have been made to date.
What the research community is learning about American attitudes and behaviors during COVID-19 will have far-reaching implications moving forward. Not only can officials leverage the information to inform communications and policy as COVID-19 progresses, but they can also use the data to inform comprehensive, and evolving, approaches to new, rapidly unfolding public health crises in the future.
The public health and economic impacts of the current pandemic have been devastating, unprecedented, and largely unpredictable. However, if some good can come from this, it is the fact that the knowledge we are gaining today will ultimately help our country emerge on the other side more resilient and better prepared to handle future crises than ever before.