CHICAGO — Roughly 1 in 4 American parents lied to or misled others about their child’s COVID-19 status at the height of the pandemic, according to a study published Monday in JAMA Network Open, a journal of the Chicago-based American Medical Association.
The research also showed that more than a quarter of parents across the country had been dishonest in some way about their child’s health, vaccination status or compliance with various COVID-19 pandemic safety measures. The findings were based on a survey of 580 parents of children under 18 from across the country, which was conducted in December 2021. Around the same time, COVID cases surged nationwide, spurring emergency school closures and abrupt switches to remote learning in many parts of the United States.
Twenty-four percent of survey respondents said they had not mentioned that they knew or believed their child was infected with COVID to an in-person contact of the child’s. More than 19% of parents polled admitted they had avoided having their child tested for the virus even though they suspected the child might have contracted COVID. About 21% had let their child break quarantine rules and just over 16% reported having said that their child didn’t need to quarantine even though doing so was required by public health guidance.
Those surveyed were asked about seven types of misrepresentations or nonadherence to public health protocols during the pandemic: Nearly 26% of the parents admitted to having engaged in at least one of those seven dishonest behaviors, according to the study.
The responses were worrisome because those forms of deception and noncompliance might have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 infections, said Angela Fagerlin, senior author of the study and chair of the Department of Population Health Sciences at University of Utah Health. So far, the virus has killed more than 1.1 million people in the United States and more than 6.8 million worldwide.
The parents surveyed also admitted to telling lies related to COVID-19 vaccination.
Just over 10% of respondents had falsely said their child had being vaccinated against COVID-19; conversely, about 12% of respondents reported having told someone that their child had not had the vaccine even though the child actually had been vaccinated. Some respondents from both of these opposing categories reported that they “did not want someone to judge or think badly of me or my child” or that “it is no one else’s business,” as reasons for misrepresenting their child’s vaccination status, according to the study. Others said they “did not think it mattered.”
About 10% of parents admitted to saying their child was older than their actual age in order to meet age restrictions that would have otherwise precluded their child from vaccination, the study found. Some cited a desire to lower the child’s general risk of contracting COVID as an explanation for the deception. More specific reasons included wanting a child vaccinated in time for school, camp, a trip, another activity, or a visit with family and friends.
Some reasons parents cited for various categories of pandemic dishonesty included not wanting their child to miss school or an activity like music, sports or clubs. Some respondents said they could not afford to miss work to stay home with a child or were unable to forgo responsibilities like getting groceries or taking care of a loved one. Some said their children were lonely or bored, major problems that plagued kids during periods of lockdown or remote schooling.
“I wanted to exercise my freedom to do what I want with my child” and “I did not want them to be angry at me or my child for exposing them” were also common explanations for various deceptive behaviors.
Other respondents said health guidelines were confusing or that they were following the advice of a trusted public figure, such as a politician, scientist, news media or a celebrity.
“The goal of the study is to make policymakers aware of how rampant this is,” Fagerlin said. “I think we really need thoughtful discussion on a national level with policymakers and scientists as to how are we going to protect immunocompromised children when we know that they will be in classrooms with kids who have COVID, the flu and RSV, and that can put their health in danger.”
The poll was administered at a time when school districts in the Chicago area and across the United States were in turmoil: All over the nation, schools had temporarily shut down or abruptly shifted to remote learning in late 2021 and early 2022, often citing staff shortages due to a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Shortly after the survey was taken, Chicago Public Schools canceled classes for several days in January 2022 after teachers voted to refuse in-person work, citing COVID-19 concerns, until the Chicago Teachers Union voted in favor of a safety plan. CPS students also staged a walkout in mid-January 2022, protesting an alleged lack of COVID safety protocols.
While COVID cases and deaths have recently been on the decline nationwide and Cook County remains at a low COVID-19 community level, researchers say the study offers caution for future public health epidemics. They urged health officials to come up with policies for schools and other systems frequented by children that don’t rely on an “honor system” for public health and safety protocols, since dishonesty seems so prolific based on the findings of the survey.
The parents polled often reported an inability to miss work due to having a child home with COVID or quarantine requirements, which became a particularly difficult balance during the pandemic.
Fagerlin acknowledged that there might not be any easy answers or resolutions to this public health quandary, because not all jobs offer paid time off in the event of a child’s illness or need to quarantine. This has been a “perpetual problem, but COVID brought it up a notch,” she said.
She cautioned against “demonizing” parents who have to make these difficult choices.
“If it’s between sending your kid potentially with COVID or not being able to feed your family, it’s a hard decision for those parents to have to make,” she said. “I think it’s important that we support families so that parents can make the best decisions for their families, but also for their communities.”
She hopes the study prompts schools and public health officials to determine how “we address that in future pandemics with the hope of keeping people as safe as possible.”
“We need to do a better job of providing support mechanisms like paid sick leave for family illness so that parents don’t feel like their only option is to engage in misrepresentation or non-adherence to public health guidelines during a future infectious disease outbreak that matches or exceeds the magnitude of COVID-19,” Andrea Gurmankin Levy, co-first author of the study and a professor of social sciences at Middlesex Community College in Connecticut, said in a written statement.
The findings come on the heels of a previous study of COVID-related dishonesty by the same researchers, which was released in October. That report found that 4 in 10 Americans lied to others about their COVID status, getting vaccinated or other prevention measures.
In that study, 18% of survey respondents had reported that at some point during the pandemic they thought or knew they had COVID but didn’t tell an in-person contact. Nearly a quarter of those polled admitted having told an in-person contact that they were taking more COVID-19 precautions than they actually were.
About 20% of those surveyed said they had not mentioned having COVID or thinking they might be infected with the virus when screened to enter a health care office.
The study acknowledged the possibility that respondents who admitted to dishonest behavior also “may have been dishonest in their survey responses.” But researchers conjectured that those surveyed would be more likely to answer in ways that were socially desirable, raising the possibility that the types of lying and deception reported in both surveys are actually more prevalent in the real world than the reports indicate.
In the October study, researchers were concerned that many of these deceptions “may have put others at risk of COVID-19.”
“Public health measures have the potential to dramatically reduce the spread and impact of the disease,” the study said, “but their success depends on the public’s willingness to be honest about and adherent to these measures.”
———— (C)2023 Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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