Researchers assess nationwide COVID-19 attitudes and masking adherence


Angeli Mittal/Daily Senior Staffer

Masking, testing and vaccination attitudes are largely influenced by political stances and widespread misinformation, according to three reports by the COVID States Project.

Angeli Mittal, Photo Editor

The COVID States Project, co-led by political science Prof. Jamie Druckman, tracks varying attitudes and responses to public health guidance across the U.S.

Three of their most recent reports examined COVID-19 data considering several socioeconomic factors, which second-year political science Ph.D. student Jennifer Lin said provides an understanding of the development of the pandemic in real time and information in the case of future outbreaks.

On masking

Until March 2020, masks weren’t recommended for public use, at which point the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged the use of cloth or surgical masks. The updated CDC guidelines as of Jan. 14 now suggest that N95 and KN95 masks, which were previously discouraged because of storage concerns, provide the “highest level of protection.” 

However, the organization maintains that the best mask is one that’s worn consistently and properly fitted — even if that’s not a respirator mask — despite the greater effectiveness of these masks than their cloth and surgical counterparts. But the Biden administration is pushing the use of respirators, making them widely available.

Because of misinformation and confusing messaging, Druckman told The Daily that finding the best advice to follow is not easy, especially when public opinion differs from national guidance. However, he said the increased distribution of higher-quality masks is a step to alleviating those barriers.

Druckman and other researchers examined the attitudes of about 17,500 individuals toward masking. 

When asked about CDC guidelines on masking, 54% of those surveyed believed the organization recommended the use of respirator masks, which it does not. About one-fourth of respondents were unsure of CDC recommendations on this topic. 

From data collected between Dec. 27 and Jan. 10 — before the CDC updated its masking guidelines — 66% agreed these masks provided more protection than other types of masks. However, about 21% of respondents actually wear respirators with 64% of survey respondents using cloth masks. Nine percent of respondents reported not wearing a mask.

Upon further analysis of the mask statistics, 48.50% reported wearing a bandana, scarf, gaiter or other cloth mask with one or two layers — the least effective mask types — while 37.60% reported wearing a surgical mask. 

However, the survey did not make clear whether those who wore cloth masks with fewer layers did so on top of surgical masks, which have been shown to be more effective than either of those masks on their own.

Nineteen percent of right-leaning individuals reported not wearing a mask compared to 2% of left-leaning. Considering vaccination status, 23% of those who were unvaccinated reported not wearing a mask compared to 4% of vaccinated individuals. The survey also showed a race disparity in mask wearing with 12% of white individuals not wearing masks compared to 3% of Black, 3% of Asian and 6% of Hispanic individuals.

Individuals who were more likely to wear a respirator mask were identified as left-leaning, vaccinated, educated beyond high school, earning higher incomes, people of color or over 65. 

Across 17 survey waves of the project, researchers found the percentage of individuals who reported adhering to CDC mask-wearing “very closely” to peak at about 80% in winter 2020. When the CDC said masks were no longer necessary in May 2021, respondent masking compliance plummeted to less than 50% the following month.

On at-home testing

Another survey conducted by the group found 31% of respondents who tested positive from an at-home antigen test did not receive a confirmatory test from a healthcare provider or testing facility. Unless medical professionals report at-home tests in official statistics, this means COVID-19 positive cases may be under underestimating true counts by about 6%.

Ph.D. student Lin said the stigma associated with getting COVID-19 may also contribute to this underestimate, as people may be less likely to report at-home test results.

“The social aspect of getting COVID is so stigmatized, which is just really unfortunate,” Lin said. “We’ve been told by public health officials what to do to prevent COVID, but also just be super aware that this virus is present, if you’re contributing to it, to some people, there is that sense of guilt.”

Sixteen percent of respondents said they couldn’t get tested as often as they desired given limited availability, which could further contribute to underestimating positive cases due to potentially missing data.

The federal government has taken steps to make at-home testing more accessible after it launched its order form Jan. 18 to provide four, free at-home tests per household.

The survey also found 73% of college-age students have tested, whether rapid or antigen testing, with 33% of this demographic having used an at-home antigen test at least once. Of individuals aged 65 and older, 58% reported having tested, with 9% having used an at-home test at least once.

However, these numbers could be due, in part, to greater accessibility of in-person and at-home testing at universities.

On misinformation

Another COVID States Project report determined COVID-19 misinformation is primarily driven by the trust an individual has in established experts such as the CDC to provide guidance. Those who don’t trust these sources tend to seek out their own information, which tends to be misinformation.

The survey collected data from 545 healthcare workers, who have been found to be one of the most trusted sources of information about COVID-19. 

One third of healthcare workers surveyed found misinformation to be an “urgent problem,” being the determining factor as to whether an individual decides to get vaccinated. 

When asked about sources of misinformation, 73% of healthcare workers indicated social media — specifically, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube — and 64% attributed family and friends.

Druckman said this misinformation and confusing messaging is largely perpetuated by social media.

“People often add moral content to bad information and moral content spreads,” Druckman said. 

While Lin said misinformation from a person’s social networks contributes to this confusion, “flip-flopping” messaging from institutions has contributed to a lack of trust in them as well as created a barrier in catching up with current guidance.

Another factor in misinformation, Druckman said, is that partisanship has polarized the pandemic, creating “fatal consequences.”

“Politicians seemed to see it as an opportunity to mobilize their constituency — it probably maps, at some level, onto values such as equality and individual liberty,” Druckman said. “Clearly more was at play, including trying to paint the other side as ‘bad’ — and it did not help that the pandemic occurred during a (presidential) election year.”

While many states have provided incentives like store discounts and beverages for getting vaccinated, Lin said the number of vaccinations have tapered off.

The country is at a point where people who wanted to get vaccinated would have already done so, rendering incentives ineffective, she said.

“People who want to get vaccinated or want to get boosted have already done it,” Lin said. “No amount of lotteries are really going to change that. We’re at a point where people who have cared the entire time are going to continue to care, and people who gave up carrying the entire time — you can’t convince them otherwise.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @amittal27

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