Gen X, Gen Z, and Millennials know less about COVID-19 than Baby Boomers, study suggests

A study published in JMR Public Health and Surveillance suggests that, contrary to media reports, Baby Boomers are the most knowledgeable generation when it comes to COVID-19. Women, those with a higher income, and those with a college education were also especially knowledgeable.

“Some of the most important problems in the world require an understanding and acceptance of science by the general public, including addressing health problems such as the emergence of the novel coronavirus (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 [SARS-Cov-2]) and subsequent disease (coronavirus disease [COVID-19]) transmission,” study author John M. Clements says.

Clements conducted a study to examine how citizens’ knowledge and understanding of the new virus influences their behavior. The survey was conducted among 1,034 residents of the United States who were between the ages of 19 and 77. The survey was initiated on March 17, 2020, at which time there were 5,704 reported cases of COVID-19 in the US, and 195,957 worldwide.

The questionnaire used 12 questions to assess participants’ knowledge about the virus. These questions addressed the clinical features of the virus, its transmission, methods for controlling the virus spread, and methods for preventing infection. Additionally, three questions addressed participants’ recent behavior related to the virus. Participants were asked whether they had recently increased their purchases of cleaning supplies, food, and hygiene products; attended gatherings of over 50 people; and worn a mask when leaving home — three behaviors that conflicted with public health recommendations at the time of study.

Statistical analysis tested whether there were any relationships between participants’ knowledge of the virus, participants’ likelihood of partaking in certain behaviors, and various demographic measures.

First, certain demographic measures were associated with knowledge about the virus. When it came to generational differences, Baby Boomers had the highest knowledge scores when compared to Gen Z, Gen X, or Millennials. Younger respondents were also more likely to report attending a large gathering and wearing a face mask in public.

Those with a higher income also had more knowledge about the virus than those with lower incomes. Additionally, Democrats had an average knowledge score that was 113% higher than Republicans and were 30% less likely than Republicans to attend gatherings of over 50 people. The average knowledge score for Black participants was 70% lower than the average score for white participants.

Importantly, results showed that reduced knowledge about the virus was correlated with a higher likelihood of partaking in behavior that went against public health recommendations. Specifically, lower knowledge about the virus was associated with an increased likelihood of hoarding, increased reports of attending gatherings of over 50 people, and a higher likelihood of wearing a medical face mask when outside the home.

“Although knowledge about COVID-19 is generally high, there are differences in knowledge based on age, sex, education, income, race, and political party identification,” Clements says. “These differences appear to have prevented a coordinated effort at slowing the spread of the pandemic in the United States in the early days of the pandemic . . . Without a coordinated national response, it is likely that the United States will experience a longer, more drawn out battle than if such coordination would occur.”

Clements acknowledges the limitation that the questions used to assess participants’ knowledge were not validated and that “scientific knowledge is currently a moving target.” The researcher points out that the recommendation on masks has changed, and wearing a face mask in public is now encouraged.

The study, “Knowledge and Behaviors Toward COVID-19 Among US Residents During the Early Days of the Pandemic: Cross-Sectional Online Questionnaire”, was authored by John M. Clements.

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