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First Lutheran Church Brookings

Religious Leaders Are Most Effective Messengers for Encouraging Continued COVID-19 Mitigation Efforts After Vaccination.

The South Dakota Covid Impact Survey was conducted from April 12th to 25th, 2021 by The SDSU Poll, a research group housed in the School of American and Global Studies at South Dakota State University. A total of 3,057 registered voters in South Dakota completed our survey about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their daily lives, alongside questions on political beliefs given the partisan polarization of the policy response to the pandemic. The margin of error of this survey was +/- 2 %, which is less than most state-wide polls.

In the previous press release, we explored how to encourage those South Dakotans who are not yet vaccinated to get the jab. We found that a message from a religious leader might be the most effective strategy. Today, we will look more closely at those South Dakotans who have already received at least one dose of one of the authorized vaccines. With some exceptions, the Center for Disease Control recommends that people maintain the standard COVID-19 mitigation efforts, especially when in  indoor public spaces, even after being fully vaccinated. These efforts include wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and avoiding areas of poor ventilation. Are vaccinated South Dakotans following these recommendations and is it possible to encourage them to do so?

We first asked South Dakotans who had received at least one shot about their opinions on how important it is to follow different mitigation guidelines. There was an overwhelming consensus among the vaccinated that all of the guidelines recommended by the health authorities are important.

Bar chart showing the importance of post-vaccination mitigation efforts amongst vaccinated South Dakotans: 75% wearing a mask, 74% avoiding large groups, 75% avoiding poorly ventilated spaces, 71% maintaining social distance, and 94% washing hands frequently.

How the Messenger Matters

Broadly speaking, vaccinated South Dakotans believe that wearing a mask in indoor spaces,  maintaining social distancing, and avoiding poorly ventilated spaces are all important. But how might their attitudes be shaped through public health messaging? In what social scientists call a “survey experiment,” participants who indicated that they had already received a vaccine were presented with identical messages urging continued mitigation efforts from either a political, religious, or medical figure from South Dakota. For the sake of scientific validity, one group read a message that was unrelated to COVID-19 vaccination, in what researchers call a control group (just like a placebo in a clinical trial). Afterwards, the vaccinated participants were asked how likely they are to wear a mask after they’ve been vaccinated; and the importance they place on maintaining distancing, and avoiding poorly ventilated spaces even after they have received vaccinations.


Mask Wearing 

72.3% of participants in the ‘control group’ were “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to wear a mask after vaccination. Interestingly, this number increased in all groups that read a message from a leader. The number of respondents who were “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to wear a mask increased to 79.5%, 80.0%, and 79.0% in the political, religious, and medical groups, respectively. More sophisticated statistical analysis is planned, but  initial results seem to suggest that messaging from various public figures can effectively encourage vaccinated South Dakotans to continue following mitigation guidelines.

Pie charts showing that Political, Medical, and Religious messengers are about equally effective at conveying messages on the importance of mask wearing. 72% of the control group said they were likely to wear a mask post-vaccination, whereas 79% of the political and medical messenger groups said the same, and 80% of the religious messenger group said they were likely to wear a mask after vaccination.

Social Distancing Attitudes

 We observed some interesting and more particularized findings when it comes to the importance vaccinated South Dakotans place on maintaining social distancing practices. Here, the messenger really mattered in terms of shaping respondents’ opinions. Though respondents that read the message from political and medical messengers were slightly more keen on acknowledging the importance of maintaining social distancing post-vaccination, the real effects came from our religious messenger. A 10.2% difference was observed between the control group and religious messenger. While we certainly need to subject this to a more rigorous statistical test, this finding meets the criteria of what data scientists call “statistically significant,” meaning this observed difference is not just due to random error.

Pie chart showing respondents saying post-vaccination distancing is important by test and control groups: control group 66%, political messenger 71%, Medical messenger 70%, and religious messenger 76%.

Avoiding Poorly Ventilated Spaces

Finally, we applied a similar test to the attitudes of vaccinated South Dakotans to the importance of avoiding poorly ventilated indoor areas. This point was also mentioned in our public health message. The results are very similar to people’s attitudes on social distancing. Though people overall placed slightly lower importance on this point in general, the structure of opinion was virtually the same. Those who read the political and medical messengers placed more importance on the avoidance of poorly ventilated spaces than our control group. The difference between people who heard from the religious messenger and the control group was 10.6%. Again, this is statistically significant and shows a large substantive impact from the faith leader as the messenger.

Alt text: Pie chart showing respondents saying post-vaccination avoidance of poorly ventilated areas is important by test and control groups: control group 70%, political messenger 76%, Medical messenger 75%, and religious messenger 80%.

Overall, our intuition that the “messenger matters” in the delivery of public health messaging on COVID-19 appears to be confirmed.  Since the earliest phases of our public health response to COVID-19, nearly everything about it became politically polarized. In nearly every way, it simply became another partisan issue. This posed an interesting academic question: Can public health officials cut through this politicization and effectively transmit a public health message? Our work here shows that people are indeed receptive to such messages from non-political leaders. Should policy makers in South Dakota wish to pervade public opinion on all matters related to COVID-19, they will need to carefully cooperate with leaders that people trust, particularly those in the religious community.

Next week we will begin a series of press releases that dig deeper into the partisan nature of opinions on COVID-19, Religiosity in the state, and the political geography of COVID-19 attitudes.

Contributors: Filip Viskupic PhD, David L. Wiltse PhD & Brittney Meyer PharmD