Americans Embrace Existing COVID Precautions, as Well as New Vaccines

Americans Embrace Existing COVID Precautions, as Well as New Vaccines


By Tim Ludolph and Theo Reuter | Data Product Manager and Geospatial Data Scientist

As we step into a new year our country faces two competing realities tied to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic—first and foremost, the nascent campaigns to distribute the two approved vaccines across the country, which has successfully reached over 4M Americans and counting thus far. This positive point of hope is counterbalanced by the steadily surging number of Americans that have contracted the disease, which surpassed 20M individuals on New Year’s Day. This grim tally marks the 11th time in a row where we’ve added 1M cases in less than a week, doubling the number of infected in this country from 10M to 20M in a mere 52 days.

Case counts based on data from Johns Hopkins University

With fears of even higher tallies to come in the wake of holiday gatherings and the correlated rise in air travel, this raises the question of whether the aforementioned vaccination campaigns can be distributed quickly enough to effectively combat the case counts. Premise wanted to dive into both these topics—first to see if contributor behavior has noticeably changed since we last wrote in September, potentially helping explain the skyrocketing case counts, and then to see what their perspectives were regarding the new COVID-19 vaccines. Here’s what we found:

Preventive Measures Remain Popular

Similar to our findings back in September (through week 39 in the below images), the number of contributors reporting that they used masks and/or social distancing as preventive measures remained high—roughly 90% “sometimes” or “always” use masks, while nearly 90% say they “adamantly” or “as much as possible” socially distance when they leave the house.

Contributor responses to “do you wear a mask” (L) and “social distance when you leave the house?” (R)

These are undoubtedly positive indicators, but don’t help explain the growing case counts on their own. If the use of preventive behaviors has remained consistent overall for many months, then perhaps the intensity is the most important aspect? As we began exploring back in September, we were curious whether it was more important to move a location from “sometimes/somewhat” to “always” masking/distancing or to get a “never/not at all” population to “sometimes/somewhat” do so. 

Looking at the below maps we see a similar pattern to our previous data—an overall upward trend in the number of states increasing their use of preventive measures, with only a few trending in the opposite direction. Interestingly, though, all of the movement this time is at the poles—states either moved from the middle up or down, there were none that moved from the bottom to the middle.

States changing status on the question of using face masks—September (L) to December (R)

As you can see on the right, eight states leaped from the middle up (i.e. with “sometimes” becoming the second most popular response behind “always,” shown in bright green), compared with six that did so in September. However, none of the states moved from the bottom up this time—in fact, of the four that had done so in September, one reversed course (Iowa, shown in red) while two stayed the same. (The other was part of the aforementioned group moving from the middle up (Kansas), which completed its upward trend.)

Looking at the more granular level, the number of counties that changed status remains relatively low nationwide with the overwhelming majority staying the same, as we saw in September. Similar to then there’s a disconcerting number of counties relapsing (red), but those appear roughly counterbalanced by those that went from the middle up (bright green). There appear to be more counties that went from the bottom up this time, roughly double the number compared with September (dark green), but when compared against the case count data these counties at best appear to be treading water, if not making minor gains.

When looking across the two preventive measures most counties seemed to have similar results for both—trending up or down for both masks and distancing, or staying the same. What’s interesting are the counties that diverge between the two—either surging in mask use while falling in distancing, or vice versa. 

Places like Sedgwick County, Kansas and Oconee County, South Carolina were trending positively for mask use but relapsed for distancing this month. Meanwhile, San Joaquin County, California and Mohave County, Arizona, were doing the reverse—relapsing on mask use, while improving in distancing. As in other counties case counts in each of these appear largely the same from September to now, if not slightly better, so it will be interesting to see whether these divergences in behavior correlate to a difference in case counts in the coming weeks.

A Shot of Hope or Hesitation?

While the cause of the ever-surging case numbers may be inconclusive based on contributor responses, their feelings regarding the hopeful solution are much more clear. In light of the recent approvals and rollout of the two COVID-19 vaccines, Premise wanted to begin exploring contributor sentiment regarding them—how safe do contributors view them to be, how likely are they to receive them, and how quickly?

Since we began collecting data on these questions in mid-December the number of contributors who feel the new vaccines are “safe” or “very safe” has hovered around 40% with a comparable number neutral (~43% on average). Slightly higher numbers say they are “likely” or “very likely” to get one of the vaccines—roughly 47% on average with 31% neutral.

How safe do you believe the COVID-19 vaccines being developed are? 

When a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely/publicly available, how likely are you to get it?

This means less than a quarter of respondents had the most negative perspectives—~15% thought the vaccines were “not safe/very unsafe” and ~22% said they were “unlikely/very unlikely” to receive them, respectively. When taken in concert with perspectives regarding herd immunity—79% of respondents “agree” or “strongly agree” that “vaccines are necessary to ensure the health and safety of everyone in the community, including immunocompromised individuals”—these are promising numbers for public health officials to build upon as the supply of available vaccines begins to grow in the coming months.

The vaccines are clearly in high demand—a whopping 70% of contributors said they planned to get a vaccine “as soon as [they] can,” while far fewer said they needed to know someone who had received one or been ordered to get one first. (7% and 8%, respectively.) Contrast these with the global averages for these responses and you get a sense of how eager Americans are for the pandemic to be over. Only 39% of global contributors planned to get a vaccine “as soon as [they] can,” nearly half the U.S. total, while 33% said they needed to know someone or be ordered by a medical professional, nearly double the U.S. tallies!

How quickly will you get the COVID-19 vaccine? 

And while that eagerness is encouraging for health officials in this country who are looking to administer these vaccines as quickly as they’re produced, initial results indicate they might have some work to do on the messaging front first. That’s because an average of 27% of our contributors reported they had heard, read or seen information highlighting the downsides of the COVID-19 vaccines the past six months.

In the past six months, have you heard, read or seen any information or messaging that highlights the downsides of a COVID-19 vaccine?

As the past few years have made clear, social media is the primary source of information for many people these days. Since neither stories nor statistics are readily verifiable there, this can lead to unfounded concerns and biases against the vaccines as incomplete and/or incorrect information piles up. Public health officials will want to bear this in mind and take steps to combat these concerns—as well as any disinformation that might be spawning them—as they could limit the vaccines’ overall success and prevent us from fully reopening the country if they persist.

A Complex, Evolving Picture

Despite consistently high adoption rates of recommended preventive measures such as face masks and social distancing reported by our contributors the past few months, it appears these measures alone are insufficient to quell the continually climbing case counts across the country. Where these measures are strongest and weakest geographically also appears inconclusive when trying to determine how best to combat the virus. This means either our sampling sizes are insufficient to capture the full scope of the problem, that there are other, more compelling variables at play here, and/or the virus is a more complicated and powerful foe than these two measures alone can defeat.

As frustrating or disheartening as that may be nine months and 350,000 deaths into the pandemic, only by continuing our data collection and research efforts will we collectively find a better understanding of this disease and better countermeasures. As a result, Premise will continue to monitor both contributor perceptions regarding the vaccines, as well as their behavior regarding mask use and social distancing in the coming months. Keep checking our website for ongoing updates and insights into the virus’s impact or contact us at info@premise.com.

About Tim Ludolph and Theo Reuter

Tim Ludolph is Premise’s data product manager, ensuring our collection, analysis and visualization efforts provide insights from our global contributor network that have maximum impact on our customers’ daily operations. He has over fourteen years experience working with numerous U.S. government agencies and is a master’s graduate of American University’s School of International Service.

Theo Reuter is a Geospatial Data Scientist who is passionate about data and how it can be used to tell stories. Recently graduated from the University of Maryland College Park with an MS in GIS, he has been hard at work at Premise since January 2020 providing mapping, scripting and spatial data analysis, leveraging the spatial nature of the data Premise collects.