Coronavirus (COVID-19) Fact vs. Myth

Survey of Americans Shows Some Dangerous Myths Persist

Published March 18, 2020

 

Despite some confusion and misinformation surrounding coronavirus (COVID-19), Americans remain fairly well informed about the facts. 

However, some potentially dangerous myths still persist.

We surveyed a nationally representative sample of 702 Americans of all ages and asked them to rate the truth of a number of health myths about coronavirus (COVID-19).

Our survey respondents correctly discerned fact from fiction in most instances. The myths that some people believe, however, were surprising.

Key Findings

Understanding the facts

  • 98% of respondents know that someone can spread the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) even if they are not displaying symptoms.

  • 99% of respondents understand that washing hands frequently with hot water and soap is one of the most effective methods of preventing coronavirus transmission, and 96% say the same about avoiding large crowds such as public events.

Falling for myths

  • More than 4 in 10 Americans incorrectly believe that applying an alcohol-based disinfectant to the entire body is an effective way to protect yourself from coronavirus. Not only is this an ineffective measure to fight coronavirus, it can do more harm than good by damaging mucous membranes such as the eyes and mouth.

  • Just under 50% of people incorrectly think young people (18-35) are less likely to contract the virus than older adults (65+).

  • Nearly 4 in 10 Americans incorrectly believe the CDC has recommended the use of surgical masks.

  • 35% of people incorrectly believe the myth that COVID-19 is no deadlier than the common flu.

  • More than 3 in 10 Americans believe touching or handling imported goods poses significant risk of contracting the virus.

Common coronavirus myths graphic

Younger Americans are especially prone to believing the myth that they are not at risk of COVID-19.

Just under half of people polled incorrectly think that younger people are less likely to contract the coronavirus than older adults.

While younger people are far less likely to die or develop severe symptoms of COVID-19, there is no evidence thus far that suggests people age 18 to 34 are any less likely to contract the disease than those aged 65 and over.1

Coronavirus age myth graphic

Millennials are especially prone to believing this myth.

50% of respondents age 18 to 34 said that people of their age demographic were less likely to contract COVID-19.

That could partly explain the droves of younger people flocking to bars over the March 14-15 weekend, despite recommendations from the CDC to avoid gatherings of 100 or more people (which was later reduced to 50 or more).

Younger people are less likely to show symptoms of the disease, which may be contributing to a false sense of security.  

“You are not immune or safe from getting seriously ill,” Dr. Anthony Fauci warned to younger people during an interview.2

Fauci is the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and he's a designated point man on the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force.

“Even though when you look at the total (fatality) numbers, it’s overwhelmingly weighted toward the elderly and those with underlying conditions. But the virus isn’t a mathematical formula. There are going to be people who are young who are going to wind up getting seriously ill,” – Dr. Anthony Fauci. 

In fact, more than 50% of the most severe coronavirus patients in France requiring intensive care are under the age of 60.3

While younger people are less likely to have severe symptoms, they can be carriers of the virus and pass it on to older adults and people with underlying health conditions who are at the greatest risk of severe symptoms and death.

“WHO advises people of all ages to take steps to protect themselves from the virus, for example by following good hand hygiene and good respiratory hygiene.” – World Health Organization (WHO)4

Some uncertainty remains about how to best reduce the risk of coronavirus infection.

Nearly 2 in 5 respondents incorrectly believe that the CDC has recommended the use of face masks.

Coronavirus face mask myth graphic

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended the use of face masks for those infected with COVID-19 until they can be isolated in a hospital or at home.

According to the CDC, however, "No recommendation can be made at this time for mask use in the community by asymptomatic persons, including those at high risk for complications, to prevent exposure to influenza viruses.”5

More than 3 out of 10 respondents incorrectly believed that touching or handling imported goods posed a significant risk of contracting coronavirus.

While the virus can live on surfaces for days, "there is likely a very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures."6

"Currently there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with imported goods and there have not been any cases of COVID-19 in the United States associated with imported goods." – CDC

More than 3 in 10 Americans incorrectly think COVID-19 isn't as deadly as the common flu.

35% of respondents incorrectly believe that COVID-19 is no deadlier than the common flu. The truth is that current data suggests COVID-19 could be many times more deadly the seasonal flu.

Coronavirus death rates graphic

While the common flu kills only around 0.1% of the people it infects in the U.S.,7 the death rate for COVID-19 has been estimated to be as high as 12% in the epicenter of the epidemic in Wuhan, China, and as low as 1% in other areas.8

The actual death rate will be difficult to pinpoint and will likely be less than 3%, as many infected people experience only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all; therefore their case goes untested and unreported.

But even a death rate of 1% puts COVID-19 10 times as deadly as the common flu.

Conclusions

The COVID-19 pandemic is still evolving, and the statistics regarding infections and deaths in the U.S. will continue to climb in coming weeks.

While Americans seem to have a good overall sense of what is true and what is myth about the current coronavirus pandemic, people should continue to seek verified information from trusted sources such as the CDC, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and major news outlets.

Methodology

This study was conducted March 13-16, 2020, using Cloud Research via Amazon's Mechanical Turk. The total survey side included 702 respondents. 

Participants were filtered to exclude heavy users of the Mechanical Turk platform, as well as based on completion time and failure to follow written instructions within the survey.

Age distribution:

18-24: 56
25-34: 176
35-44: 135
45-54: 89
55-64: 67
65+: 179

Gender distribution:

Male: 282
Female: 407

Racial/ethnic distribution:

Asian: 46
Black: 65
Multiracial: 12
Native: 2
White: 562

Margin of error: +/- 5 %

This survey relies on self-reported data.

Notes

While we tried to remain as scientific as possible in our methodology, any study of health remains highly subjective. These results show an association but do not prove causality.

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not healthcare advice, treatment or diagnosis. Speak to your doctor about your healthcare needs, especially if you experience any COVID-19 infection symptoms.

Fair Use Statement

Of course we would love for you to share our work with others. We just ask that if you do, please grant us the proper citation with a link to this study so that we may be given credit for our efforts.

References

1 Qifang Bi, et al. (March 4, 2020). Epidemiology and Transmission of COVID-19 in Shenzhen China: Analysis of 391 cases and 1,286 of their close contacts. medRxiv. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.03.03.20028423.

2 Fauci, A. (March 15, 2020). CNN State of the Union [Interview]. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2020/03/15/sotu-fauci-young-people.cnn.

3 Westcott, B. et al. (March 15, 2020). More than half of coronavirus cases in France under intensive care are below the age of 60. CNN World coronavirus news. Retrieved March 17, from https://edition.cnn.com/world/live-news/coronavirus-outbreak-03-16-20-intl-hnk/h_91b13ce4323d365087bad47c5c9a8c39.

4 WHO. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: Myth busters. Retrieved March 2020 from https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters.

5 CDC. Interim Guidance for the Use of Masks to Control Seasonal Influenza Virus Transmission. Retrieved March 2020 from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/professionals/infectioncontrol/maskguidance.htm.

6 CDC. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved March 2020 from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/faq.html.

7 CDC. Disease Burden of Influenza. Figure 1: Estimated Range of Annual Burden of Flu in the U.S. since 2010. Retrieved March 2020 from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/index.html.

8 Mizumoto, K, Chowell, G. (March 13, 2020). Estimating Risk for Death from 2019 Novel Coronavirus Disease, China, January–February 2020. Emerging Infectious Diseases 26(6). https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2606.200233.