COVID-19 STUDY URGES PRECAUTION IN COLLEGE STUDENTS; Division of Research and Sponsored Programs; February 15, 2021

Image by cromaconceptovisual from Pixabay

As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches a one-year mile marker, the temptation and opportunity to socialize, party, and indulge in public events grows increasingly stronger. Perhaps now more than ever it is important for people to understand the risks associated with COVID-19. 

Clarissa headshot

“People need to understand the severity of COVID-19 and the dangers to not following public health guidelines,” said Clarissa Thompson, associate professor in the department of Psychological Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at Kent State University. 

Thompson received a grant award from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to inform and educate the public, especially the younger generations, about the dangers of the virus by creating and executing a five-minute math intervention. This grant totaled $200,000 and will help college students visualize the pandemic’s severity.  

In the early stages of COVID-19, public figures and government officials maintained that influenza and the COVID-19 virus were similar in nature and compared the severity of the pandemic to prior Influenza outbreaks.

“Many media outlets claimed that the flu was just as harmful as the virus,” said Thompson.

She explained that these claims created a false sense of security which encouraged people not to wear masks and to ignore the practice of social distancing. In addition, news outlets often compared rates of infection and death due to COVID-19 and the flu in ways that were not immediately clear. 

In preparation for the grant, Thompson asked 1,300 participants to indicate which of two diseases had a higher fatality rate given the number of people infected and the total number of deaths as depicted in the following table.




Virus A 2,125 55,924
Virus B 16,777


“About 43% of participants incorrectly indicated that hypothetical virus B was more fatal than Virus A,” said Thompson. “We know why they made this mistake because they told us in their own words. They only focused on the really big numbers in Virus B and failed to recognize that 16,777/1,677,720 = a fatality rate of 1%, whereas 2,125/55,924 = a fatality rate of 3.8%. However, after completing a 5-minute intervention on logic and statistics, 84% of participants were able to correctly answer an analogous problem comparing COVID-19 and the flu.” 

Thompson has found that helping people accurately think about the math underlying COVID-19 and flu fatality rates caused adults to rate their own and others’ COVID-19 risks higher. The ongoing study will help people better understand the severity of the pandemic through different ways of visualizing COVID-19 related risks, such as comparing the risks on a number line, a tool used in many math classrooms to help students comprehend the size of numbers.

“We have a perception that wars are really deadly, but in fact, a larger number of people have died from COVID-19 than soldiers from World War I,” said Thompson. 

One challenge is that college students have a better chance of full recovery if they are diagnosed with COVID-19, so it may be harder to convince college students of the need to follow public health guidelines. However, Thompson has found that many college students are concerned about the safety and well-being of those vulnerable to COVID-19, such as elders, and with a better understanding of risk may be more likely to engage in protective behaviors. 

“By helping them envision the effects of the pandemic, the younger generations may be able to better understand its severity and be more likely to protect themselves and others,” said Thompson.

Learn more about the Department of Psychological Sciences



POSTED: Monday, February 15, 2021 12:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday, March 29, 2023 03:54 AM