Nearly Half of Americans Lied About Following COVID-19 Measures. But at What Cost?

COVID lies

Verywell Health / Mira Norian

Key Takeaways

  • Almost half of Americans lied about something COVID-related or complying with public health measures on at least one occasion, according to a national survey.
  • Experts say this level of noncompliance undoubtedly had an impact on the severity of the pandemic.
  • The survey underscores the need to tailor new strategies to specific demographics in order to improve public health messaging.

The United States has never implemented extremely strict COVID-19 public health measures compared to other countries, but nearly half of Americans struggled to abide by simple quarantine rules, according to a new survey.

The national survey asked 1,733 U.S. adults about their compliance with COVID-19 measures. In total, 41.6% admitted being dishonest about something COVID-related or failing to comply with public health measures on at least one occasion.

Survey respondents were asked about nine different types of non-adherence. The most common behaviors were telling someone they were with or about to see in person that they were taking more COVID-19 preventive measures than they actually were (24.3%) and breaking quarantine rules (22.5%).

When asked for their reasoning for doing so, the most common answers included wanting life to feel normal and wanting to exercise personal freedom. But experts say that “personal freedom” may have come at a steep cost.

“We knew that people weren’t always following public health guidance, but were often claiming they were. This study gives us an understanding of how common those behaviors were,” Brian Labus, MPH, PhD, an infectious disease expert at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told Verywell.

The most disappointing finding, Labus said, was that one out of five people lied to their doctor’s office during COVID entry screenings—knowingly putting healthcare workers and other potentially vulnerable patients at risk.

The Lies Had a Big Impact

While many people may have felt that their lies were mostly harmless, the truth is far more grim. These actions ultimately played a significant role in the severity of the pandemic. “Every one of our actions, good or bad, determined the trajectory of the pandemic,” Labus said.

“This disease was difficult to stop even in the most controlled conditions… failing to follow public health guidance made it that much tougher,” he added. “While not everyone infected someone else because they didn’t follow public health guidance, many of them did. As a result, people ultimately got sick and died. But it’s like the saying goes: no individual snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche.”

According to Alex Jahangir, MD, Nashville’s COVID task force chair and author of Hot Spot, non-adherence to COVID measures allowed the virus to keep spreading and mutating faster than it would have otherwise. He added that the survey result was based on self-reported data, so the true rate could be even higher when factoring in people who hid their noncompliant behavior.

It’s also possible that in some cases, noncompliance by enough individuals may have created a knock-on effect in their communities, Jahangir said. People who intended to comply could have been inspired to break quarantine or forego testing after an exposure if their friends and family did so without visible consequence.

“If more people had self-isolated or otherwise helped minimize the virus’ spread, then the past two years could have been far less severe, especially for our most vulnerable neighbors,” he said. “The U.S. might not have lost over one million lives.”

Brian Labus, MPH, PhD

While not everyone infected someone else because they didn’t follow public health guidance, many of them did. As a result, people ultimately got sick and died. But it’s like the saying goes: no individual snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche.

— Brian Labus, MPH, PhD

Challenges for the Future

According to the study’s authors, the survey results revealed a serious public health challenge for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and future infectious disease outbreaks.

“Misrepresentation and nonadherence regarding public health measures being fairly common, the effectiveness of these measures in preventing disease spread may be undermined,” the authors wrote.

With many infectious diseases currently making a comeback and new ones on the rise, many experts believe another pandemic is inevitable. This survey, according to Jahangir, paints a grim picture of how prepared the U.S. will be to respond effectively if and when that happens.

“I believe that people are exhausted by the constant need for vigilance, the lack of easily understandable and accessible information and the ever-changing, and sometimes contradictory, mitigation strategies employed by various state and federal departments,” he said. “This makes me worried that if a future pandemic were to occur, an even greater number of people will not listen to or comply with public health experts.”

The Way Forward

Labus said there are ways to improve public health messaging and increase compliance in the future.

The survey showed that resistance to public health recommendations varies by demographics, and understanding that resistance can help officials develop improved approaches and better target their messaging, Labus explained.

“For example, the study found that people who get their information from celebrities were more likely to not follow public health guidance or lie about following the guidance,” he said. “If that is the case, it would make sense to recruit celebrities to help spread the correct public health messages in the future.”

He said the most effective messages are those that come from within the population, not from someone on the outside, such as a public health official. As a result, he said it often makes more sense to partner with people and groups who are already trusted rather than try to build trust from scratch.

Jahangir reiterated this point, telling Verywell that there needs to be a sincere effort to build trust across all communities by working with and through their most respected members, such as the leaders of religious congregations and leaders of local nonprofits and community organizations.

“This will take time,” he said, “but we need to start now if we want to see more positive outcomes—both in this pandemic and in the pandemics yet to come.”

What This Means For You

While following public health measures may not always be the more gratifying choice in the moment, it’s important to look at how cumulative actions might affect the whole community. Experts say targeted public health messaging will be crucial for tackling any future disease outbreaks.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

1 Source
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Levy AG, Thorpe A, Scherer LD, et al. Misrepresentation and nonadherence regarding COVID-19 public health measuresJAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(10):e2235837-e2235837. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.35837

By Mira Miller
Mira Miller is a freelance writer specializing in mental health, women's health, and culture.