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Rutgers professor discusses coronavirus survey project

Katherine Ognyanova, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, said researchers involved in this project launch a new survey every three to four weeks, which includes questions about participants' health, their personal networks and communities during the pandemic, among other things. – Photo by Rutgers.edu

The COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States released reports this month for its ninth wave of a national survey examining attitudes and behaviors regarding the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the United States. 

The consortium’s surveys are a joint project between Rutgers, Northeastern University, Harvard University and Northwestern University, according to the website. For the ninth wave, researchers surveyed 21,196 people across all 50 states, including the District of Columbia, from Aug. 7 to 26.

“My colleagues and I were concerned about the course of the pandemic — and worried that the U.S. did not have enough detailed state-level information to fully understand the spread and the impact of COVID-19,” said Katherine Ognyanova, assistant professor in the Department of Communication and one of the project’s researchers. “Several of us were network scholars and thought it was important to track both the spread of the disease but also of news, opinions and attitudes towards it through social networks, offline and online.“

Researchers have launched a new survey wave every three to four weeks, Ognyanova said. Surveys include questions about participants’ health as well as their personal networks and communities during the pandemic, economic and other consequences of the pandemic and COVID-19 testing and preventative measures people are taking, she said. 

The most recent report focuses on misinformation and vaccine acceptance. Researchers assessed respondents’ acceptance of 11 false claims that have circulated online since the start of the pandemic, according to the report. The statements included six false claims about conspiracies or risk factors and five false preventative treatments for COVID-19.

“The numbers of people who believe some of those statements are quite dangerously high,” Ognyanova said. “Specifics are in the report, but you can see, for instance, that misperceptions about COVID-19 are highest among young people and non-white Americans, as well as among people who use social media as a primary information source.”

A quarter of respondents age 18-24 falsely believed antibiotics were effective against COVID-19, and 24 percent in this age group thought only people over the age of 60 were at risk. Ognyanova said that another problematic finding is Black and Latinx communities who have been most affected by the pandemic may also be more vulnerable to some false claims.

One element that makes the researchers’ data especially useful is the ability to capture trends by state and over time, Ognyanova said. 

“So for example, we can observe worrying tendencies, such as the fact that the percent of Americans saying that they would be 'somewhat likely' or 'very likely' to get a COVID-19 vaccine when it is available has dropped from 66 percent in July to 59 percent in August,” she said.

The website also displays a “trust tracker” showing how much people trust scientists, doctors, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, various government branches and the media, among other institutions and leaders. Researchers reported a gradual erosion in public trust between late April and August across all 15 institutions and leaders included in their survey, to widely varying degrees.

The White House and Congress experienced the largest declines, going from 59 percent to 49 percent and 55 percent to 42 percent respectively, according to the report. Meanwhile, trust in Joe Biden’s management of the pandemic dropped by only one point from 51 percent.

Trust in President Donald J. Trump’s management of the pandemic declined from 50 percent in late April to 43 percent in August, with a slight uptick of two points since July, according to the report.

Scientists and medical experts have the most public trust, which has remained at more than 85 percent from April to August, according to the report.

“Our project has three goals,” Ognyanova said. “To inform policy-makers and public health experts in near-real time so they can make better decisions, to provide data to epidemiology research tracking the pandemic and to conduct academic research so we can learn from this crisis and do better in the future. We are sharing our data and insights directly with collaborators and decision-makers, as well as making a lot of our findings public online.”


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