This article was originally published here
PLoS One. 2022 May 20;17(5):e0268302. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0268302. eCollection 2022.
Early public health strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the United States relied on non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) as vaccines and therapeutic treatments were not yet available. Implementation of NPIs, primarily social distancing and mask wearing, varied widely between communities within the US due to variable government mandates, as well as differences in attitudes and opinions. To understand the interplay of trust, risk perception, behavioral intention, and disease burden, we developed a survey instrument to study attitudes concerning COVID-19 and pandemic behavioral change in three states: Idaho, Texas, and Vermont. We designed our survey (n = 1034) to detect whether these relationships were significantly different in rural populations. The best fitting structural equation models show that trust indirectly affects protective pandemic behaviors via health and economic risk perception. We explore two different variations of this social cognitive model: the first assumes behavioral intention affects future disease burden while the second assumes that observed disease burden affects behavioral intention. In our models we include several exogenous variables to control for demographic and geographic effects. Notably, political ideology is the only exogenous variable which significantly affects all aspects of the social cognitive model (trust, risk perception, and behavioral intention). While there is a direct negative effect associated with rurality on disease burden, likely due to the protective effect of low population density in the early pandemic waves, we found a marginally significant, positive, indirect effect of rurality on disease burden via decreased trust (p = 0.095). This trust deficit creates additional vulnerabilities to COVID-19 in rural communities which also have reduced healthcare capacity. Increasing trust by methods such as in-group messaging could potentially remove some of the disparities inferred by our models and increase NPI effectiveness.