University of Nevada, Reno assistant professor in political science part of multidisciplinary team of scholars dedicated to informing risk messaging and public policy
RENO, Nevada – A new survey report issued last month from a national COVID-19 research group revealed stark differences between the behaviors and beliefs of residents across U.S. states.
The Risk and Social Policy Working Group – an interdisciplinary group of public health, public policy, psychology, political science and communication researchers from across the U.S. – examined how individuals perceive the risks associated with COVID-19, as well as how they respond through their behaviors and adherence to policies such as mask-wearing or stay-at-home orders.
“Our goal for this research is to get it into the hands of policymakers so that they can understand the effects of their state’s policies on public risk perceptions and behaviors,” Elizabeth Koebele, assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno, said. “We are seeing a surge in cases across a number of states right now, so this research is important and timely to make sure that policymakers are making the best decisions for their states. This will be even more important as public health officials anticipate an increase in cases this fall during cold and flu season.”
The researchers conducted the first of a three-wave panel survey of individuals residing in Colorado, Massachusetts, Iowa, Washington, Louisiana and Michigan. These states were chosen to capture variation in the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, risk reduction policies, and demographic and social factors.
“Elizabeth Koebele, who received the College of Liberal Arts 2020 CLA Mousel-Feltner Award for research accomplishments, continues to engage in impressive and vital social science and policy research,” University College of Liberal Arts Dean Debra Moddelmog said. “Her recent work with the interdisciplinary, inter-collegial Risk and Social Policy Working Group is the latest example of her involvement in research that directly impacts our efforts to confront and solve important societal issues – in this case, around policy and behavior related to COVID-19.”
Overall, data compiled from across all six states found:
- While most people say their physical health is about the same as it was before the pandemic, 25 percent say their mental health has gotten worse.
- Despite CDC reports to the contrary, individuals think that there is about a 28 percent chance they will get COVID-19. If they contract the disease, they believe there is a 34 percent chance they will get seriously ill and a 22 percent chance they will die.
- Individuals worry about money more than most other issues, saying there is a 28 percent chance they will run out of money due to COVID-19.
- 66 percent of individuals say they always wear a mask in public indoor spaces.
“People are broadly supportive of measures to reduce risk and exposure,” Koebele said. “State and local governments have responded to the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis by implementing policies such as stay-at-home orders and school and business closures to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. While these kinds of risk reduction policies have slowed the spread of COVID-19 in many states, the challenges for governments associated with the pandemic will persist in the coming months, especially as they continue to make decisions around the easing – or strengthening – of restrictions.”
The report emphasizes that understanding how individuals perceive the risks associated with COVID-19, as well as how they respond through their behaviors, is critical for creating effective risk communication strategies and risk reduction policies. It is also important for assessing the differential effects of state-level policies on risk perceptions and behaviors, especially as both the policies and the pandemic dynamics continue to evolve. For instance, while the survey data show that people generally overestimate their risk of contracting COVID-19, highly variable levels of compliance with recommended behaviors for slowing the spread of COVID-19 among respondents were observed.The Risk and Social Policy Working Group studies the effect of COVID-19 risk messaging strategies and existing public policies on individual behavior across the various stages of the pandemic. The group formed around a belief that effective risk communication is critical to mitigating the spread of COVID-19, especially as stay-at-home orders are eased and people return to work and other daily activities. The group conducts rigorous, interdisciplinary research that can inform both academic research and public policy. Funded by National Science Foundation, the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Natural Hazards Center and the University of Colorado Denver. The team of scholars who comprise the Social Policy Working Group are an interdisciplinary group of public health, public policy, psychology, political science and communication researchers from across the U.S.