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COVID Across the Country

Interdisciplinary research takes a state-level approach to understanding the impact of the pandemic.

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By Clare Milliken
Fall 2021
News

What are the reasons people choose not to get vaccinated against COVID-19? What are parents’ top concerns about vaccinating their children? Are COVID-19 symptoms associated with odds of depression symptoms? What is the role of partisanship in COVID-19 misperceptions?

Since its inception in March 2020, the COVID States Project has answered these questions and more. Bringing together experts in political science, public health, network science, epidemiology and even psychiatry, the project aims to understand how beliefs and behaviors are affected by the health, educational and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how that, in turn, impacts transmission of the virus. Comprising researchers from Northwestern, Harvard, Rutgers and Northeastern universities, the project also examines the role of messaging from government officials, the media and our social networks.

Political science professor James Druckman. Credit: Shane Collins

“When the first lockdown started, it became apparent to several of us that there would be a very federalized response, and we saw a lot of people immediately doing national surveys,” says James Druckman ’93, the Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. “We thought it would be interesting to do state-level surveys.”

The COVID States Project has gathered data on topics ranging from vaccination rates and support for vaccine mandates to social isolation and trust in institutions. Druckman and colleagues have surveyed adults across all 50 states and made that data freely available on the project’s website.

19%
Percentage of the U.S. population who were unvaccinated but regularly wearing masks in October 2021, according to the COVID States Project

For Druckman, whose own research focuses on political polarization, one of the group’s most surprising findings is the extent to which vaccination has been politicized.

“I don’t think I could have imagined a situation where clinging to your partisan identity would overtake health considerations,” Druckman says. “I didn’t expect it to be as extreme as it has been.”

The project has looked at economic hardship as a result of the pandemic and the pandemic’s toll on mental health. “It’s really an epidemic of massive proportions in terms of the mental health impact,” Druckman says. “And there needs to be a lot of attention to that.”

For sophomore economics major and research assistant Uday Tandon, the COVID States Project has been an invaluable experience.

“Being involved in one of the biggest events in the century is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Tandon says. “The research we’ve been doing is very public-facing. It’s something that you can really put out there and communicate to a wide audience, which I think isn’t always the case.”

The scope of the research, which is slated to continue through the 2022 midterm elections, has broadened since the start of the project.

“As other major national events occurred, we [felt we had to] study them,” Druckman says. “So we certainly studied the election and the reactions to Black Lives Matter protests and the Jan. 6 insurrection. We are trying to be responsive to events as they unfold.”

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