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What do people know (and think they know) about COVID-19?

By Natasha Strydhorst.

Stories and speculations have been swirling throughout the pandemic, seemingly spreading as fast as COVID-19 itself. The stories we see in academic journals and our newspapers of choice, however, are not necessarily the same as those making the rounds via social media and the (however pandemic-constrained) everyday social interactions. 

Just which stories—and attendant (mis)perceptions—are making the rounds? We set out to capture a snapshot of these in three U.S. municipalities a little over one year into the pandemic, creating a small but rich smorgasbord of impressions in the midst of a historic global disruption of commerce, travel, workplaces, habits, and—foundationally—health. What that snapshot looks like, in a word: diverse. 

We asked 27 participants five core questions: What do you know about COVID-19? What have you heard about COVID-19 that you think may be true? What would you most like to know about the disease COVID-19? What would you most like to know about viruses in general? And, what would you most like to know about bacteria in general? 

In terms of basic knowledge, many participants shared an understanding that COVID-19 is a virus (17 out of 27 specifically mentioned this), 15 referred to it as a respiratory illness, 14 mentioned it is contagious/spreads easily, and 12 specified it spreads via vapor. 

Concept map of a study participant's understanding of COVID-19. It shows how the participant made conceptualised different aspects of the COVID-19 virus.
A participant's concept map of their understanding of COVID-19. Figure from Public Understanding of Science, CC BY NC

The most prevalent commonality, however, was narratives. Specifically, people communicate using stories—a great deal of the time. In our own sample, a majority (78%) of participants shared personal experiences a collective 284 times. Some poignantly linked COVID-19 to health crises with personal relevance—Christine (a pseudonym, as are all names here) witnessed San Francisco’s HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s, and Francine had married a man who’d had polio. 

“I’m not a scientist,” Francine said, “but I can’t help but compare it to polio because I grew up with that scare. And even though there were problems with polio [vaccines], people very much believed in getting vaccinations to eradicate it.” She cited her experience as part of the reason she believes in vaccination to combat public health crises. “I think that younger people who didn’t grow up around polio and that kind of thing—they don’t appreciate that,” she suggested. 

Speaking of vaccinations, that measure was the most commonly mentioned among our participants. Their perceptions about vaccination were mixed. Many participants were eager to share they’d been vaccinated, while others suggested COVID-19 vaccines were suspect—either because of their perceived rapid development or perceived inefficacy. 

The top themes brought up by our participants suggest future research targets: personal experiences, attitudes toward public health precautions, uncertainty, and thoughts about the science communication environment during a global pandemic. Participants’ suggestions for science communication going forward include a focus on basic media explainers, the safety and efficacy of vaccinations, and the necessity of uncertainty in the practice of science. 

Natasha A. Strydhorst, MSc, is a PhD student at Texas Tech University with an interest in science literacy, (dis)trust in experts, and narrative science communication. Her background is in scholastic science communication, and she has written science-centered stories for Yale School of Medicine, Yale Center for Clinical Investigation, and Hope College.