Change Over Time in Public Support for Social Distancing, Mask Wearing, and Contact Tracing to Combat the COVID-19 Pandemic Among US Adults, April to November 2020

Colleen L. Barry, PhD, MPP; Kelly E. Anderson, MPP; Hahrie Han, PhD; Rachel Presskreischer, MS; Emma E. McGinty, PhD, MS

Disclosures

Am J Public Health. 2021;111(5):937-948. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

Objectives: To examine how sociodemographic, political, religious, and civic characteristics; trust in science; and fixed versus fluid worldview were associated with evolving public support for social distancing, indoor mask wearing, and contact tracing to control the COVID-19 pandemic.

Methods: Surveys were conducted with a nationally representative cohort of US adults in April, July, and November 2020.

Results: Support for social distancing among US adults dropped from 89% in April to 79% in July, but then remained stable in November 2020 at 78%. In July and November, more than three quarters of respondents supported mask wearing and nearly as many supported contact tracing. In regression-adjusted models, support differences for social distancing, mask wearing, and contact tracing were most pronounced by age, partisanship, and trust in science. Having a more fluid worldview independently predicted higher support for contact tracing.

Conclusions: Ongoing resistance to nonpharmaceutical public health responses among key subgroups challenge transmission control.

Public Health Implications: Developing persuasive communication efforts targeting young adults, political conservatives, and those distrusting science should be a critical priority.

Introduction

Nonpharmaceutical public health measures—including social distancing,[1–3] mask wearing,[4,5] and contact tracing[6]—are critical approaches to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. Since lockdowns were lifted in early summer 2020, the uptake of these measures has depended largely on voluntary adoption. Nearly a year into the pandemic, we know relatively little about which factors facilitate or impede public support for adherence to lifesaving public health measures aimed at controlling disease transmission. Little scholarly research has explored this question, and most press accounts of variable adoption of public health measures have focused on young adults,[7] political conservatives,[8–10] men,[11] and rural residents.[12]

Factors such as beliefs about science may also play a role.[13,14] Distrust of science has the potential to create fertile ground for misinformation to take hold. Likewise, social networks through religious affiliations or civic organizations or norms within geographic regions may be influential in determining attitudes about social distancing, mask wearing, and contact tracing.

Finally, whether a person has a fixed or fluid worldview could provide an alternative explanation for diverging public views on social distancing, mask wearing, and contact tracing to combating the pandemic. A person with a fixed worldview—sometimes described as having an authoritarian worldview[15]—tends to prioritize social order and hierarchies to bring a sense of control to a world that is perceived to be chaotic.[16] This construct has taken on renewed relevance in light of the economic and social instability brought on by the pandemic. In their book Prius or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America's Great Divide, Hetherington and Weiler explain worldview as what is going on deep down inside people and their perception of labeling the world as a dangerous place (fixed) or not a dangerous place (fluid).[16] The concept of worldview has gained increased prominence among scholars attempting to explain the growing divide in fundamental beliefs, distinct from political partisanship, that characterized the Trump administration.

In this study, we analyzed data from 3 data collection waves of a nationally representative cohort survey of US adults. We used public opinion data from April, July, and November 2020 to examine how sociodemographic, political, religious, and civic characteristics; trust in science; and worldview were associated with evolving public support for social distancing, indoor mask wearing, and contact tracing to control the COVID-19 pandemic. While various data collection efforts are underway to capture the experiences of people in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic,[17,18] we are aware of no nationally representative studies that track public attitudes longitudinally on these topics across multiple phases of the pandemic in 2020.

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