Young Californians who identify themselves as Republicans are less likely to follow social distancing guidelines that prevent coronavirus transmission than those who identify as Democrats or Independents, according to a University of Southern California study published Monday.
The findings among 18- to 25-year-olds mirror what many have observed about America’s politicized response to COVID-19 and are a source of concern for public health experts dealing with a surge of cases nationwide, according to Adam Leventhal, director of the USC Institute for Addiction Science.
As of Friday, the United States was averaging 207,000 new cases and 2,319 deaths per day.
In the past week, Los Angeles County has been averaging 10,959 new cases a day and 55.6 deaths per day.
“You might expect middle-aged or older adults to have established ideologies that affect their health behavior, but to see it in young adults who have historically been less politically inclined is unexpected,” Leventhal said. “Regardless of age, we would never hope to find results like this. Public health practices should not correlate with politics.”
The study was conducted during the summer via an online survey that was completed by 2,065 18- to 25-year-olds living predominately in Los Angeles County. The participants were initially recruited as ninth-grade high school students as part of the USC Happiness & Health Project, which has been surveying this group about their health behaviors every six months since 2013.
Of the young adults contacted, 891 identified as Democrat, 148 as Republican, 320 as “Independent or Other,” and 706 declined to answer or said they didn’t know what political party they identify with.
Researchers, whose findings were published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that 24.3% of Republican young adults said they don’t frequently social distance from others, compared with just 5.2% of Democrats.
Differences in social distancing practices were also found when Republicans were compared to Independents and young adults who did not report a political party affiliation. Researchers discovered that Republicans versus other groups were more likely to visit public indoor venues such as malls, restaurants, bars or clubs, or attend or host parties with 10 people or more.
Throughout most of the COVID-19 pandemic, California has recommended that all residents practice social distancing and wear a mask when outside their home. Current restrictions prohibit private gatherings of any size.
Leventhal noted that when his team statistically adjusted for 21 factors that could explain the difference in social distancing across political party groups, including propensity for risk-taking behaviors, Republicans were four times more likely than the others to be infrequent social distancers.
He also said that the “blue county within a blue state” setting for the study underscores that the link between political party affiliation and social distancing cannot simply be reduced to an issue of urban vs. rural differences.
In Los Angeles County, the percentage of voters registered as Democrats is about 50%, while the percentage of registered Republicans is about 17%, with 5% registered with other parties and 28% having no party affiliation.
In West Hollywood, the percentage is 60% registered Democrats, 10% registered Republican and 13% registered with other parties and 19% having no party affiliation. Percentages are rounded to the nearest whole number, which is why it adds up to more than 100.
USC’s department of preventive medicine recently looked at another impact of the pandemic on young adults: stress-eating.
The pandemic has resulted in a widely reported uptick in snacking, grazing and purchasing of unhealthy “comfort” food. The USC study, published Dec. 4 in the Journal of Adolescent Health, surveyed 1,820 19-year-olds about pandemic coping behaviors.
They found that young adults who reported overeating to cope with social distancing and isolation had gained 5.5 pounds in the first 13 weeks of the pandemic.
“Interventions to promote healthy eating practices in young adults warrant consideration for weight gain prevention during the pandemic,” wrote first author Tyler Mason, an assistant professor of clinical preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
In addition to Leventhal, other authors of the politics and social distancing study include Jessica Barrington-Trimis, Rob McConnell, Jennifer Unger, Steve Sussman and Junhan Cho, all of the Keck School of Medicine of USC; and Hongying Dai of the University of Nebraska. The stress-eating study includes Leventhal and Barrington-Trimis as co-authors.