Americans 'dramatically misunderstand' risk of dying from COVID-19, researchers say

Americans overestimate the mortality rate for people aged 55 or younger

Americans “dramatically misunderstand” the risk of death they face during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the findings of a joint Franklin Templeton-Gallup research project released last month.

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Researchers found that Americans overestimate the mortality rate for people aged 55 or younger, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through July 22. For example, respondents estimated that people aged 44 or younger accounted for 30 percent of U.S. COVID-19 deaths, when the actual figure for that age group was 2.7 percent.

Conversely, Americans estimated that people aged 55 or older accounted for roughly 57 percent of COVID-19 deaths, when the actual figure was 92 percent. Americans thought people aged 65 or older accounted for roughly 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths, when the actual figure was 80 percent.

The misconception “translates directly into a degree of fear for one’s health that for most people vastly exceeds the actual risk,” according to Sonal Desai, chief investment officer at Franklin Templeton Fixed Income.

“The fact that a large share of the population overestimates the COVID-19 danger to the young will make a targeted public health response more difficult to agree on,” said Desai. “We think it is also likely to delay the recovery, causing a deeper and prolonged recession.”

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While people aged 18 to 24 accounted for 0.1 percent of overall COVID-19 deaths, about 59 percent of respondents in that age bracket said they fear significant health consequences if they contract the virus. The CDC’s website notes “the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age, with older adults at highest risk.”

Researchers identified “partisanship and social media” as key factors in the discrepancies.

“Fear and anger are the most reliable drivers of engagement; scary tales of young victims of the pandemic, intimating that we are all at risk of dying, quickly go viral; so do stories that blame everything on your political adversaries,” Desai said. “Both social and traditional media have been churning out both types of narratives in order to generate more clicks and increase their audience.”

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Franklin Templeton and Gallup found that people who relied on social media as their key source of information on the pandemic had the “most erroneous and distorted perception of risk.” Researchers drew results from online surveys conducted by 10,014 U.S. adults aged 18 or older from July 2 to July 14.

As of Tuesday night, the U.S. had reported more than 5.4 million confirmed individual COVID-19 cases and more than 169,000 deaths, according to the CDC.

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