Utah public health officials concerned about reports of public deception over COVID-19 status


Boram Kim


A recent University of Utah survey found that close to half of Americans knowingly misrepresented their COVID-19 status and/or did not comply with public health measures during the height of the pandemic.


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In the online survey, 41% of 1,733 surveyed adults reported misrepresentation or nonadherence for at least 1 of 9 behaviors, with the most common being lying about taking COVID-19 preventive measures to someone they were in or planning to be in close contact with.  

The results also showed nearly 47% were not vaccinated at the time of taking the survey, suggesting that these behaviors constitute a serious public health challenge.

“This possibility highlights the need for further research examining strategies for educating the public on the importance of honesty and adherence in these situations as well as for addressing the factors (eg, the burden of quarantine, believing that COVID-19 is not real) that drive misrepresentation and nonadherence,” the report read. It also underscores the importance of public health officials, policy makers, and media personalities fostering trust and engagement in these public health measures to reduce the occurrence and therefore the impact of misrepresentation and nonadherence.”

Utah public health officials expressed concern over the results and the political ideologies that create mistrust in public health messaging. 

“Throughout this whole pandemic, unfortunately, we’ve had a mix up between health and politics, health and governmental control,” said Dr. Leisha Nolen, State Epidemiologist. “We have people who are feeling a need to not tell the truth and feel a need to present sort of a different face than what they really are doing at home and what they do in their life in order to fill in some narrative. And that’s really concerning. 

As public health officials, we’re here to make sure people are healthy in whatever way that needs to be. We don’t have a political agenda other than that, we want to keep people healthy. It’s really concerning to have that not just for COVID but the worry that it will bleed over into other areas of health and public health.”

Nolen added that it was important for those working in public health, including the CDC and states, to remind people that epidemiologists are not politicians but are working to keep communities safe from disease.

According to data from Johns Hopkins University, the rate of new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Utah recently dropped to its lowest since April, with 1,881 new cases counted in the 7-day period that ended October 2nd. Utah ranked 7th among states where the coronavirus was spreading slowest on a per-person basis.

Nolen attributes those results to the state’s vaccination program. Vaccines were placed in high profile and accessible locations such as grocery stores in communities with low uptake. The state also employed community health workers to conduct outreach in underserved areas.  

“The Pacific Island community is a really strong community here in Utah, but unfortunately not really connected into the public health system,” Nolen said. “So we went out and we found people who are good representatives from the Pacific Island community and got them engaged so they could work with their community, to get them vaccinated, and get them protected. I think that has been a really good success and something that we hope to use, not just with COVID but as we go forward.”

She said that working with local communities, understanding what their beliefs and values are, and communicating the importance of vaccines contributed to the state’s efforts to fight the disease. She emphasized using one message does not work for all communities and it is important for public health officials to communicate with each other to promote vaccine uptake.