College Student Perceptions of Pandemics

On-Site Staff

June 27, 2020

Outbreak management is essential to reduce the impact of COVID-19. Examining perceptions of the public are imperative to develop an understanding of how certain groups in the population are likely to follow behavior strategies to avoid infection.

With the rapid growth in scale and severity of the COVID-19 outbreak, the implementation of preventive measures such as social-distancing and self-isolation has led to a sudden disruption in the operation of schools, colleges, and universities. Public cooperation in adhering to infection control measures is required to minimize the spread of COVID-19. College students are at high risk of contracting and spreading infectious diseases, with universities considered outbreak centers (1). Overall, enough research has found that young adults are more likely to be infected during pandemics (1). Several factors are responsible, such as dormitory living, frequent large social gatherings, and the general perception of health concerns amongst this specific demographic.

In one qualitative study during the H1N1 pandemic, the knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions toward influenza A were examined amongst domestic and international university students. College students based at one university in Sydney Australia were found to be generally knowledgeable about influenza transmission. Still, it was uncommon for participants to identify university students as being at risk of catching influenza (2). The use of social distancing/isolation or masks/respirators were found not to be popular amongst participants (2). A significant inference from this study was that the implementation of infection control behaviors depends on environmental (e.g., time, energy, availability of facilities, social norms) and motivational (e.g., social responsibility, social relationships, selfishness) factors (2).

Another study examined the health beliefs concerning influenza A (H1N1) immunization among undergraduate college students (ages 18-24) (3). After the H1N1 vaccine was made available in 2009, younger people (up to 25 years of age) were explicitly targeted for distribution due to higher rates of infection and complications among that age group (3). Even so, among 296 US undergraduates sampled, only 15.2% reported having received a vaccine (3). Furthermore, 83.8% of the study’s respondents agreed that “college students have a high likelihood of getting infected with the H1N1 virus.” Still, only 37.2% agreed that “people like me are likely to get sick with H1N1 influenza” (3). These findings suggest that optimism bias regarding avoiding the pandemic may have been a factor in vaccination perceptions and decisions (3).

While current research focused on this specific demographic throughout the global health crisis remains scarce, a recent study explored the responses/opinions to the COVID-19 pandemic by college students who use Twitter. To gauge how the abrupt transition toward online learning has introduced challenges for students, 73,787 tweets from 12,776 Twitter college followers who posted tweets relating to the COVID-19 pandemic were analyzed, in terms of topics on several social issues (4). College students were found to focus their discussions on issues relating to their living environments, such as school closure and local news (4). The percentages of negative COVID-19 tweets were shown to be significantly higher amongst college students (4). Analyzing college student demographics through social media can be vital for both educators and policymakers by characterizing assessed behavior in a way that measures the effectiveness of on-going efforts in the global fight against COVID-19 (4).

Outbreak management is essential to reduce the impact of COVID-19. Examining perceptions of the public are imperative to develop an understanding of how certain groups in the population are likely to follow behavior strategies to avoid infection. An examination of perceptions includes predicting how pandemic vaccines might be received; in this case, a COVID-19 vaccine (3). These studies also provide implications for practitioners tasked with supplying the college-aged community with crucial health information in the event of a public health crisis as well as educating students on how best to prepare and respond to a pandemic (5). This specific course of action will benefit communities all around the world by preventing the spread of infection.

1. Akan H, Gurol Y, Izbirak G, Ozdatlı S, Yilmaz G, Vitrinel A, et al. Knowledge and attitudes of university students toward pandemic influenza: a cross-sectional study from Turkey. BMC Public Health. 2010 Jul 13;10(1):413.
2. Seale H, Mak JP, Razee H, MacIntyre CR. Examining the knowledge, attitudes and practices of domestic and international university students towards seasonal and pandemic influenza. BMC Public Health. 2012 Apr 26;12(1):307.
3. Ravert RD, Fu LY, Zimet GD. Reasons for Low Pandemic H1N1 2009 Vaccine Acceptance within a College Sample. Advances in Preventive Medicine. 2012;2012:1–7.
4. Duong V, Pham P, Yang T, Wang Y, Luo J. The Ivory Tower Lost: How College Students Respond Differently than the General Public to the COVID-19 Pandemic. arXiv:200409968 [cs] [Internet]. 2020 Apr 21 [cited 2020 Jun 24]; Available from: http://arxiv.org/abs/2004.09968
5. Koskan A, Foster C, Karlis J, Rose I, Tanner A. Characteristics and influences of H1N1 communication on college students. Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal. 2012 Jan 1;21(4):418–32.

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