OSU Cascades researchers examine how COVID-19 messaging reaches different communities

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
Dec. 28, 2020 8:34 p.m. Updated: Dec. 29, 2020 2 p.m.

Oregon State University researchers in Bend are trying to understand how different communities, both nationally and locally, have responded to public health messaging about the coronavirus pandemic. The researchers say they’re also collaborating with Bend and Deschutes County officials to better tailor that messaging moving forward.

“We understand that an important part of public health communication is reaching the groups who are more likely to distrust medical and scientific institutions,” said Elizabeth Marino, a cultural anthropologist and co-director of OSU Cascades’ Laboratory for the American Conversation. “Considering the values and worldviews of these groups, and showing those worldviews in public health messaging is one way — not the only way, but one way — to promote equity.”


Marino and Christopher Wolsko, the lab’s other co-director, worked together to conduct a national online survey in November, reaching 520 people across the U.S.

The study, funded by the city of Bend, investigated beliefs and behaviors related to COVID-19 among different demographic groups in order to better understand the types of people and places where coronavirus spread is heightened.

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Overall, the national survey found roughly 40% of people surveyed believe COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, and about 25% thought the pandemic is likely a hoax. The margin of error was plus or minus 4%.

Marino stressed that the survey results are introductory to ongoing research, including additional interviews with communities in Bend that she expects to go into the new year. That initial report has not been officially published and has only been shared with city and county officials so far.

“We really understand this initial report as preliminary,” Marino said. “What we’re doing now is holding focus groups with the demographic communities that flagged as having distrust in scientific and medical institutions, so the people that we think will be more likely to be vaccine-hesitant.”

Marino said they are studying why that distrust exists.

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According to the study, the communities that showed the most distrust in medical and scientific establishments were people of color as well as people who identify as politically conservative and those who have strong individualistic value systems. Marino noted, however, it can be problematic to group communities together in such broad strokes.

“We know that people are much more than the demographics that surveyists check for them,” Marino said. “These communities are embedded in particular cultural histories all over the country. There’s not this monolithic category that these survey results sometimes might have you believe.”

She said that’s why researchers are continuing to work on interviews and focus groups to understand deeper cultural context of how and why ideas emerge.

Although Marino, Wolsko and others are still conducting research, local city and county officials are hoping to use the preliminary findings to better frame public health messaging in Central Oregon.

“These survey research findings may be quite valuable for Deschutes County Health Services, as we continue to manage our local response to the pandemic,” Dr. George Conway, county health director, said in a statement. “The results of this study will help us to better tailor and target public health messaging.”

Marino said there are two time frames researchers are targeting.

“The first is how are we going to make sure that we all get through COVID safely in the next year,” she said. “But the lab also has an eye on the longer timeframe — how do we have these conversations and establish trust in one another over longer periods of time so that this event, this pandemic, can actually be a resilience-building moment instead of creating social disarticulation, instead of further wedging people apart.”

Even with such varying opinions and levels of distrust surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, Marino said there were some types of messaging that resonated across communities.

“People responded really positively across all sorts of demographic categories — political affiliation, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status — people responded really positively to the idea that you should wear a mask and social distance to protect your elders,” she said. “I think the commonality in that finding — the idea that this is still an idea that resonates among such a wide variety of the American public, was really hopeful.”

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The initial findings also showed public health messaging that emphasized patriotism fared positively for people who otherwise reported suspicions about COVID-19, a distrust in science and doubts about the effectiveness of social distancing.

Marino said researchers are currently recruiting more Bend residents for focus groups to learn how the national survey aligns with the beliefs of local residents.

“The core of the work, the getting to the ‘why’ and having an honest conversation about why people might be feeling nervous or feeling worried, we’re not there yet,” she said.


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