TAMU study: 60% of Americans engaged in “risky behavior” before COVID vaccines were available

Published: Oct. 12, 2021 at 11:22 PM CDT
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - Texas A&M researchers released the results of a nationwide study they did on people engaging in what health experts considered risky behaviors before COVID-19 vaccines became available.

These “risky behaviors” include things like eating indoors at restaurants or bars, family gatherings, or things associated with travel, such as flying an airplane or staying in hotels. They found roughly 60% of respondents engaged in at least one of those activities, while about 17% engaged in four or more.

Jay Maddock is a public health professor at Texas A&M and one of the primary conductors of the study.

“What’s interesting is, what we call the local leisure behaviors - visiting family and friends, eating inside a restaurant, going to a bar - tended to have different predictors than travel behaviors, like taking an airplane or staying in a hotel,” Maddock said. “Kind of what we normally expect for the local behaviors, things like being younger, not thinking that COVID is going to be as bad if you get it, some fiscal conservative things that came out of the political arena at the time, that was different than the people who took an airplane or stayed in a hotel, who tended to be wealthier and better educated.”

Maddock says that finding surprised them because people who are wealthier and better educated tend to be more averse to risky public health behaviors.

”The biggest surprise we saw in the data is that having a pre-existing condition was not related to any of the risk behaviors,” Maddock said. “So if you had asthma, you were obese, you had COPD, over and over again, it’s more risky, right? It’s more risky that if you get COVID, it’s going to be a lot worse. It didn’t make a difference in any of the behaviors that people did.”

The study surveyed over 2,500 American adults, ranging in ages as young as 18 to older than 90. Maddock says it shows that public health messaging about susceptibility to viruses needs to be better during future pandemics.

“If you look early in the pandemic, and really through it, the idea of COVID is not dangerous for young people, and we saw this right when spring break started in 2020 and all of our college students head out to spring break because it wasn’t considered risky,” Maddock said. “The idea of perceived severity, which is a strong factor in a lot of behaviors, if it’s not severe, then why shouldn’t I do it? That was interesting.”

He says one of the things about pandemics is they deal with emerging data, which often drives the desire to get out there and say something.

“I think some of the early messaging that COVID is not serious among younger people was problematic because that’s what kind of got the widespread, initial wave that we saw in March and April where a lot of college students were traveling and not taking precautions,” Maddock said. “Maybe they didn’t get that sick, but they helped spread the disease to their parents and grandparents and other people in the community.”

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