Americans have ‘gross misperception’ of COVID-19 risk of dying, ‘to a shocking extent,’ researchers say

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A recent research study has found that Americans “dramatically misunderstand” the mortality rate and risks of dying from the coronavirus.

The joint Franklin Templeton-Gallup project found that there is a “gross misperception of COVID-19 risk” as detailed in a report that was published last month which said this is “driven by partisanship and misinformation.”

(Image: CNBC screenshot)

“Americans still misperceive the risks of death from COVID-19 for different age cohorts—to a shocking extent,”  Sonal Desai, chief investment officer at Franklin Templeton Fixed Income, said in the research project report.

Fox News’ Brit Hume found the results “shocking” as he noted in a tweet highlighting some of the findings based on data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through July 22. This included the fact that there seemed to be a belief among respondents that people 55 years and older make up just over half of the total COVID-19 deaths when the actual figure is 92 percent.

Those surveyed also believed that people aged 65 or older made up about 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths, while the actual figure was 80 percent. They also responded that people aged 44 or younger accounted for 30 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S, but the actual number was just 2.7 percent.

“These results are nothing short of stunning,” Desai said in the report, noting that data has shown that the coronavirus deaths were “overwhelmingly concentrated in people who are older.”

“Nearly all US fatalities have been among people older than 55; and yet a large number of Americans are still convinced that the risk to those younger than 55 is almost the same as to those who are older,” Desai noted.

The misconception “translates directly into a degree of fear for one’s health that for most people vastly exceeds the actual risk,” Desai added.

“The fact that a large share of the population overestimates the COVID-19 danger to the young will make a targeted public health response more difficult to agree on,” she said. “We think it is also likely to delay the recovery, causing a deeper and prolonged recession.”

The study found that “partisanship and social media” played a part in the discrepancies between data and perception.

People relying on social media as a news source during the pandemic had the “most erroneous and distorted perception of risk,” researchers found as well as noting that those “who identify as Democrats tend to mistakenly overstate the risk of death from COVID-19 for younger people much more than Republicans.”

“This, sadly, comes as no surprise,” Desai wrote.

“Fear and anger are the most reliable drivers of engagement; scary tales of young victims of the pandemic, intimating that we are all at risk of dying, quickly go viral; so do stories that blame everything on your political adversaries,” she added. “Both social and traditional media have been churning out both types of narratives in order to generate more clicks and increase their audience.”

The future implications on the U.S. economy, especially with a looming election, were also addressed, as Desai noted how Americans will be willing to pay a “safety premium” that may affect future inflation.

“We launched this joint project to gain a deeper insight into people’s behavioral response to the pandemic, because we believe it will play a crucial role in shaping the economic recovery. Our first round of polls has already yielded surprising insights that raise some concern for the outlook, but also highlight important calls to action,” Desai wrote.

Noting that “misperceptions of risk distort both individual behavior and policy decisions,” the report concluded that the “top priority should be better information and a less partisan, more fact-based public debate.”

Frieda Powers

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