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Conceptual Understandings of COVID-19: The Virus, the Myths, the Legends

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Have you heard things about COVID-19 that made you think, “Hang on — where did they get that idea? Is it correct?” 

Have you wondered why you haven’t seen stories in the media about X, Y or Z, when those topics seem to be inescapable across social media feeds and in conversations with friends? 

We, too, were curious about the understandings and misconceptions the public has about COVID-19 more than one year into the pandemic. We decided to find which perceptions and stories were making the rounds among individuals in three cities in different parts of the country and which have populations that differ politically and racially/ethnically from one another: Lubbock, Texas; New Brunswick, New Jersey; and San Francisco, California. We conducted online interviews with 27 individuals, nine from each location, to identify the local knowledge and stories being circulated in each community. And reader, there were plenty of stories. 

In fact, personal experiences were the most common thing we heard during the interviews, and most of them took the form of narratives. It makes sense — literally: Stories are how we, as human beings, tend to make sense of the world around us. This might not sound like a novel discovery (and it isn’t), but it does bolster the evidence that stories are a good way to capture and hold attention and perhaps gain a little trust — necessary features when communicating about an ongoing global pandemic. We uncovered a few other key themes too: COVID-19 vaccinations, uncertainty and science communication in the media each got at least 85 mentions across the 27 interviews. 

Overall, a basic knowledge of COVID-19 and the global pandemic were common among our participants, as one might expect, more than one year into it: 17 participants specifically referred to COVID-19 as a virus, 15 mentioned it is a respiratory illness, 14 that it is contagious/spreads easily, and 12 that it spreads via vapor. Many participants had more complete understandings, but others did not indicate knowledge much beyond these basic concepts.

Here are some key findings :

  • People communicate using stories — a lot. The most prevalent theme in our sample — by a substantial margin — was personal experience, often in the form of narratives. A majority of participants (78%) collectively shared personal experiences 284 times. Among the most poignant narratives were those shared by Christine, who witnessed San Francisco’s HIV/AIDS epidemic in the ’80s; Esther (from New Brunswick), who empathized with non-English speakers who couldn’t effectively weather the English-language infodemic; Emily (San Francisco) whose close friend was hospitalized with COVID-19; and San Francisco’s Francine, who married a man who’d had polio. “I’m not a scientist,” Francine hastened to explain during her interview, “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.” The unwillingness of some individuals to receive vaccines today struck her as a marked contrast to that time. “I believe in vaccines because I’ve seen how it can eradicate things. I think that younger people who didn’t grow up around polio and that kind of thing — they don’t appreciate that.” 
  • COVID-19 vaccinations are a prevalent topic of conversation across the gamut — from celebration to concern. Of all the precautions mentioned by participants (vaccinations, hand-washing, social distancing and wearing masks) none came up as frequently as vaccinations. The COVID-19 vaccines were mentioned by 81% of the participants a collective total of 88 times. This is hardly surprising, given the unprecedented feat of developing three federally approved vaccines in under a year, and the media’s saturated coverage of this achievement. Many participants readily shared they’d been vaccinated, and Iris (New Brunswick) was downright delighted to do so: “My husband and I, we are both older people, 75 and 76, and had the devil of a time getting vaccinated. We put ourselves down for every place that you could possibly sign up for. We had to travel, each of us to a different place. I’m very happy that we got vaccinated. I was looking forward to it.” 

This sentiment, however, was not shared by all our participants. Some shared concerns that the vaccines were unsafe — or at the very least suspect — for having been developed so quickly relative to previous vaccines (a view held by Helen — who still opted to receive one) that they have had no real effect on slowing viral spread (suggested by Lubbock’s Fred and Garai) and that vaccine makers will be adjusting the formulations to work out the kinks discovered via adverse reactions of the early adopters. “I think people who wait a little longer might be in a better place,” proposed New Brunswick’s Flo — who nonetheless reported receiving the “early” vaccine formulation herself.

  • Uncertainty and science communication likewise came up regularly. Uncertainty made up a broad coding category in that it was expressed by both the most and least informed participants. Despite the seemingly interminable nature of the pandemic, COVID-19 remains a novel coronavirus that is still the topic of a great deal of scientific study and discovery. Some participants, including New Brunswick’s Alice and Flo, expressed uncertainty about the utility of social distancing to reduce the spread of COVID-19, even though this has been staunchly supported by public health authorities since early on in the pandemic. On the other hand, some participants expressed uncertainty about a precaution that has long ago been deemed unnecessary: wiping down groceries and other inanimate surfaces. “I honestly don’t know enough,” said Esther, of New Brunswick. “Let’s say I touch a spoon or something, and it’s been four hours; is it really dangerous if I touch it by mistake and then touch my mouth?” It is not — but the fact that uncertainty remains highlights an information gap to be addressed in future communications. When it comes to science communication, it’s also a mixed bag: Participants expressed their thoughts on both areas for improvement and areas where it’s being done well (The New York Times, The Atlantic, and BBC got particularly positive shout-outs). Areas of uncertainty suggest a rich load of subject matter yet to be communicated (or, in some cases, communicated again) by medical science/public health media personnel. 
  • Participants have suggestions for communicators. Esther, of New Brunswick, was curious about whether it was unnecessary to immediately shower upon returning home from outside; she suspected it was, but hadn’t been explicitly told so by the media. “Honestly, I would like to know verifying stuff” — what was unnecessary and what was important in terms of public health practices. She likewise recommended greater outreach to individuals who do not speak or read English and therefore are unable to engage with local newscasts and articles during a public health crisis. In a similar vein, San Francisco’s Christine suggested, “some simple media explainers” about the mRNA technology that went into creating the COVID-19 vaccinations “would go a long way.” She cited CNN as glossing over the difference between emergency use authorization and regular vaccine approvals. Irene, who is a science communicator by trade, concurred that simple media explainers could be effective; she suggests that a lack of basic understanding is part of what’s contributing to misinformation about mRNA technology in the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. People are “hearing these stories, like, ‘what’s mRNA to begin with?’” she said. “A lot of people are like, ‘Well, it must be like DNA.’ That’s one of the biggest misinformation stories — that it’s like gene therapy and it will change your DNA.” 

Our participants primarily communicated in stories; some of their strongest aversions and admirations of the COVID-19 vaccines are in response to stories, and it is evident that trust can be lost — or gained — at the drop of a story. While our participant pool is far from large and representative enough to be generalizable, it seems evident that two key factors for effectively communicating science, at least for some, are using narratives (stories) and seeking familiar, trustworthy community members to carry the message. The message, meanwhile, ought to take the form of “simple media explainers” (as suggested by Christine) about those hot-topic issues: the role of uncertainty in the practice of science, COVID-19 vaccines, and the mRNA technology that made them possible. 

You can read more about the survey design and the full report, called “Conceptual Understandings of COVID-19” here and below. To learn more about the Cracking the Code project visit kqed.org/crackingthecode.


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