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COVID-19 Pandemic Shakes Public Trust in CDC

The same surveys found that public trust in the U.S. Postal Service and the FEMA bumped up significantly over the same period.

The public’s trust in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dropped during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new RAND study.

Surveys of more than 2,000 people in May and October 2020 show about a 10% drop in trust of the CDC over that period, with the overall population-level trust in the agency falling to the same lower level of trust long held by Black Americans about the agency.

In contrast, the same surveys found that public trust in the U.S. Postal Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency bumped up significantly over the same period, despite those agencies facing their own challenges.

“The Biden administration will have an uphill battle in rehabilitating trust in the CDC at this critical junction in the coronavirus pandemic,” said Michael Pollard, lead author of the study and a senior social scientist at nonprofit RAND.

“A key challenge in the months ahead will be to identify who will be viewed as trusted messengers regarding vaccines and public health policies,” Pollard said.

The study found that non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics reported significant declines in trust in the CDC, while the changes were not statistically significant for non-Hispanic Black or “other race” respondents.

“There is remarkable consistency and convergence in reported levels of trust in the CDC across these subgroups after the declines,” Pollard said. “Lack of trust among Black Americans has been a well-publicized concern regarding the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, and the convergence in lower levels of trust across race/ethnicity highlights a key challenge that the CDC now faces.”

Black Americans have long held a low level of trust in healthcare institutions, widely seen as a legacy of past racism in the nation’s health system, Pollard said.

The survey respondents, all members of RAND’s American Life Panel, were asked in May to rate their trust in the CDC, USPS and FEMA on a scale of 0 to 10, and again in October.

Trust in the CDC fell from 7.6 in May to 7 in October. Conversely, trust in the Postal Service rose from 6.9 in May to 7.7 in October; trust in FEMA rose from 6.4 in May to 6.7 in October.

Drop in trust of the CDC was notable among people who intended to vote for Donald Trump or another candidate other than Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election or did not intend to vote at all. Pollard said that finding suggests that views of the CDC are now strongly politicized, although similar politicization was not observed for FEMA or the USPS.

“The public trust in federal government agencies has never been as important as during the current COVID-19 pandemic, yet public suspicions of scientific experts and distrust of government institutions are increasing for a variety of reasons,” said Lois Davis, co-author of the report and a senior policy researcher at RAND.

“Reasons for this include a blurring of the line between opinion and fact, and access to more sources of conflicting information,” Davis said.

Davis said the CDC could rebuild trust and depoliticize public’s views of the agency by ensuring that the public understands the scientific rationale for policy changes and guidance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

John Commins is a content specialist and online news editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.

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