As of November 23, 2021, there were over 43.6 million SARS-CoV-2 infections in the United States [1, 2] and more than 700,000 deaths from COVID-19 [1, 3]. Infection and death rates likely significantly underestimate the true population impact given that there have been nearly 300,000 additional deaths in the United States since the start of the pandemic. [4, 5]. In addition to the burden of mortality, there are long-term cardiac, respiratory and other consequences for patients with COVID-19 [6, 7]. In many parts of the United States, infection rates have evolved over time with changes in policy-mandated prevention strategies, decreasing when prevention-focused policies were in place, then increasing again at as prevention strategies were relaxed. .
A central part of public health strategies to control the spread of infectious diseases is to recommend or compel members of the public to engage in protective behavior to prevent disease transmission. In the event of COVID-19, staying 6 feet apart, wearing masks, working remotely when possible, avoiding public gatherings and other strategies have been approved and communicated to the public by the CDC, FEMA, WHO, and other national and international public health agencies. agencies [9,10,11]. These preventative strategies are effective in slowing the rate of COVID-19 infection [12,13,14]. However, for infectious disease prevention behaviors to be effective, they must be consistently adopted by a sufficient proportion of the population to slow transmission. [15,16,17].
Social and cultural influences on the construction of risk perceptions and preventive behaviors.
Most theoretical and empirical treatments of risk perception focus on individual cognitive and reasoning processes as the key determinant of a person’s perception of risk. [18, 19]. In contrast, the social risk amplification framework [20, 21] describes the process by which scientific evidence, the means by which people obtain information (e.g., news media), and political and cultural forces shape how individuals interpret and prioritize health risk information health. According to this framework, perceptions of risk can be amplified or dampened by social processes that influence: 1) the availability of risk information (e.g., via media and political sources) and 2) society’s response to it. information (e.g., discourse on the veracity of risk information in the media and interactions with cultural and peer groups ).
Influential communicators such as social/activist organizations and opinion leaders among social groups or organizations are key sources of information and can influence the discourse surrounding risk information . For example, political groups, parties and leaders are prominent examples of influential communicators who can shape how their members and affiliates interpret risk information. These processes of amplification and mitigation through influential communicators likely contribute to an alignment between, on the one hand, people’s political affiliation and their underlying values and, on the other hand, their perceived risk.
During the pandemic, politicians in several countries have sought to control the amount and type of information the public receives about the risk of COVID-19, as well as to actively challenge scientific discourse on risk. Residents of several countries received messages from political leaders that downplayed the risks and raised doubts about prevention strategies. For example, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Boris Johnson, has publicly announced that he will not engage in social distancing and, more specifically, that he will continue to shake hands  less than a week before the UK government begins planning policy strategies to prevent transmission . In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro made public statements that downplayed the perception that the virus posed a risk, comparing it to the flu  and actively advocating against the preventive policy strategies that were being implemented in Brazilian cities [25, 26]. Similar downplaying and contradictory statements can be found among the leaders of other countries .
In the United States, the country of the current study, then-President Donald Trump regularly made public statements that downplayed the threat posed by the virus. [28, 29] in terms of severity, comparing it to the flu and the number of cases and deaths . President Trump has also downplayed the importance of preventive actions to protect against transmission, including arguing against mask mandates. pushing for an early relaxation of stay-at-home and business-shutdown orders and holding public gatherings despite social distancing policies in place . The president admitted to being motivated to downplay the risk despite clear warnings about the severity and severity of the spread of COVID-19 ( p. xviii).
In addition to risk perception, individuals’ decision-making regarding COVID-19 prevention behaviors took place in the context of a complex, saturated and rapidly changing information environment, with multiple messages and sometimes contradictory from traditional media, social media and government messages. . Political messages are proven to influence the behavior of people who support the politician delivering the messages. Specifically, a study of the impact of President Trump’s anti-vaccination messages found that exposure to the messages negatively impacted vaccination engagement intentions, but only from voters who did vote. for him. .
Based on the social risk amplification framework, one would expect that the selective communication of risk information by politicians and the confusion of politics and public health in media messages would influence perception. of risk by the public and their decision-making regarding behavioral strategies to mitigate risk. Moreover, given the current American phenomenon where some news media offer partisan perspectives on issues, one would expect this effect to be exacerbated as the news media “amplify” messages about the perception of risk. . Thus, one could predict that political affiliation, by affecting exposure, attention, processing and response to SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 messages, would influence risk perception and behavior.
Considering empirical evidence and plausible and theoretical mechanisms for the role of social amplification in risk perception and decision-making regarding risk reduction messages, we hypothesize that political party affiliation will be linked to engagement in preventative measures for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19, so that – given the prevalent themes of minimization in President Trump’s statements, those who identify more strongly as Republicans will be less likely to engage in preventative measures and will perceive fewer risks compared to those who identify more strongly as Democrats.
We examined whether Americans’ identification with political parties is related to perceived risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection, severity of COVID-19 illness, and engagement in a range of preventive behaviors. Although there have been reviews of the relationship between political affiliation and support for preventive measures against COVID-19 (e.g., political measures to restrict gatherings, mask-wearing), our approach adds to this literature in two ways. First, we use a nuanced and quasi-continuous assessment of the strength of party affiliation, providing insight into how the strength of political beliefs affects responses to COVID-19. Second, we examine the effects of political partisanship on perceptions of the risk of COVID-19 infection in addition to support for preventive measures, providing insight into how politicians’ risk minimization messages might affect perceptions of individuals from the risks posed by COVID-19.