OBJECTIVES: The novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) resulting from severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 began to affect the United States in early 2020. This study aimed to assess the US public's initial understanding about the disease and virus to inform public health communication efforts.
METHODS: We conducted a survey of US households from February 28 through March 2, 2020, using a probability-based web-panel survey of 1021 US residents. To assess knowledge about COVID-19, we asked respondents a series of 16 true/false questions. We conducted descriptive statistics and linear regression analyses to examine differences in knowledge scores based on demographic and background characteristics.
RESULTS: Knowledge about COVID-19 and the virus was relatively low overall at the beginning of the outbreak, with average scores of 62% on a 16-item knowledge index (ie, answers for 6 of the 16 questions were incorrect or unknown). Knowledge was especially low among people who had low education and income levels, were unemployed, were Hispanic, were non-Hispanic Black, were aged 18-24 and 35-49, indicated having "other" health insurance, and had limited exposure to information about the pandemic. Non-Hispanic Black respondents were less knowledgeable about COVID-19 and the virus at every education level compared with non-Hispanic White respondents at higher education levels. Non-Hispanic Black respondents with <high school degree were the least knowledgeable of all subgroups.
CONCLUSIONS: The findings of our study highlight the need for widespread, ongoing public health education about the virus and COVID-19, especially among certain populations. It is critical to effectively translate complex clinical and epidemiologic evidence into messages that most people can understand and act on during a pandemic, that combat misinformation about the virus and COVID-19, and that consider low levels of health literacy.