U.S. adults look to scientific organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rather than their president, to lead the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. This finding comes from a recent survey targeting perceptions about COVID-19 that was published in PLOS ONE.
In a global health crisis, communication with the public is essential and ongoing. Researchers McFadden and colleagues explain that in order for messaging to be most effective, it is important to consider public attitudes and identify trust issues when it comes to sources of information. In their recent study, researchers wanted to gain insight into the perceptions of the U.S. population concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the survey was undertaken before any large-scale outbreak in the U.S., the results capture attitudes in the general U.S. population before risk of infection was high.
A total of 718 adults in the U.S. completed an online survey in the beginning of February 2020. At this time, the World Health Organization had recently declared COVID-19 as a national public health emergency, but local transmission had not yet been documented in the United States. The sample was considered to be fairly representative of the U.S. population in terms of “age, gender, race, ethnicity, and education.”
To assess perceived dangers associated with COVID-19, participants completed a 10-item perceived risk scale. They were also asked to rate the reliability of various sources of information about the virus. These sources included social media, the television, and health professionals.
Finally, participants were asked who they would prefer to see in charge of the U.S. response to COVID-19. They ranked the following options: the president, Congress, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Director for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, the State Departments of Health, and the Local Health Departments.
Results showed that subjects perceived the risks associated with the virus to be fairly low, with an average risk perception score of 5 out of 10. Still, when questioned about restrictive policies, 83% of subjects showed support for quarantine measures and 75% supported travel restrictions.
What’s more, 35% of respondents supported “temporary discrimination based on someone’s country of origin” in the event of an outbreak. The researchers point out this unsettling statistic. “These responses are concerning,” the authors say, “and preemptive targeted messaging by the public health agencies is required to ensure a compassionate response to this outbreak.”
The majority of respondents preferred scientific or public health leadership over political leadership. It was found that 53% of people wanted the CDC Director to lead the U.S.’s response to the crisis, 16% wanted the NIH Director in charge, and only 13% wanted the president in charge. When it came to sources of information, healthcare professionals and health officials were ranked most trustworthy by respondents and social media was ranked the least trustworthy.
“Given our results,” the researchers conclude, “the public health/scientific leadership should be at the forefront of the COVID-19 response to promote trust. Strategic messaging by the CDC and the NIH through television, print, and internet has strong potential to alleviate unnecessary fear among the U.S. population.”
The study, “Perceptions of the adult US population regarding the novel coronavirus outbreak”, was authored by SarahAnn M. McFadden, Amyn A. Malik, Obianuju G. Aguolu, Kathryn S. Willebrand, and Saad B. Omer.