The results of a survey taken just weeks into the COVID-19 outbreak in the US reveal most Americans want the official response to be led by scientists and public health agencies – not by the president or Congress.
In early February, just a few short months ago (although it feels much longer), the world was in a very different place with regards to COVID-19. Back then, the disease had only just been given its official name, and was still a whole month away from being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation.
In the US, the scale of the outbreak at the time was almost unrecognisable compared to what it looks like today. At time of writing, the US is approaching 1.5 million confirmed cases, with almost 90,000 deaths. In early February, total confirmed infections numbered only a dozen people, none of whom had actually died from the virus.
Still, Americans knew they were facing a very serious problem. Cases had been spreading in the US for a few weeks by that point (if not much earlier), and by the end of January, the outbreak had been declared a public health emergency by the Trump administration, echoing the WHO’s own declaration of a global health emergency just one day before.
Against this backdrop, when the risk of infection in the US was still considered low (but growing), researchers at Yale University conducted a survey to find out what American adults actually understood about the risks poised by the coronavirus outbreak, how much of a threat they considered it to be, and who they felt should overall be leading America’s response to counter the virus.
The results, recently published, show that a significant majority of the 718 respondents surveyed – assessed by the team to be a “fairly representative” sample of the general public – wanted scientists and public health authorities to be in charge of the response to COVID-19, not the president or members of Congress.
“We asked participants to rank who they felt should lead the US response to COVID-19,” the authors explain in their paper.
“Options included the president, Congress, the Director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Director for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).”
Ultimately, over half (53 percent) of respondents indicated they wanted the director of the CDC to be in charge of the COVID-19 response, followed by the director of the NIH (16 percent). In comparison, the president was the choice of only 13 percent of participants, and Congress was picked by just 1 percent of respondents.
According to the researchers, those preferences could be strategically meaningful in the future, in terms of identifying the best and most trusted channels for distributing information and advice during the COVID-19 pandemic as it continues.
“Responsive, open, and respectful communication with the US population by these agencies may improve public health compliance and safety,” the researchers write.
“Given our results, 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 US population.”
Of course, the results of the study as a whole have to be interpreted in context, and with awareness of the study’s limitations. This is a pretty small survey overall, even if the researchers note that their cohort provides a good overall match with the demographics of the US in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity and education.
It’s also only giving us information gleaned from a very particular snapshot of time: the calm before the storm of the coronavirus outbreak in the US, which rapidly accelerated in terrible directions after these people were polled.
Nonetheless, in light of our continued, grim situation – with slowly reopening countries facing the prospect of second waves, experts warning the virus might never go away, and uncertainty about what COVID-19 recovery really means – any insights that might help alleviate unnecessary fear are welcome news right now.
The findings are reported in PLOS One.