Examining Political Polarization on COVID-19 Response in the United States: A Case Study Open Access

Isidor, Nheissa (Spring 2022)

Permanent URL: https://etd.library.emory.edu/concern/etds/vq27zp79m?locale=en


Background: Political polarization in the United States has increased over the years. These partisanship differences play a significant role in public health policy in the United States, especially in issues regarding quick and effective response. Despite the need for political consensus in times of crisis, there is a growing amount of evidence that the COVID-19 response in the United States has been politically polarized. The lack of political consensus has severe consequences on the livelihood and well-being of the American people.  


Purpose: The purpose of this thesis is to explore the role of political polarization on public health policy through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic response in the United States. Through a documentary case on study polarization on social distancing measures, this thesis aims to identify the drivers of existing political barriers that hinder the transformative change needed in public health today.


Methods: A literature review and a case study were chosen as the methodological approaches to examine the role of political interference in the COVID-19 response in the United States. The sequential synthesis of these approaches resulted in the development of recommendations to establish political coherence in public health policy for the future.


Results: The role of political polarization on social distancing measures were examined through two separate analysis: one examining political polarization on social distancing orders across all fifty states and another on the effect of partisanship on public perceptions regarding stay-at-home orders in Pennsylvania. These analyses suggested that the political interference in the COVID-19 response in the United States remains a major roadblock not only to the necessary full compliance with social distancing measures but to the transformative change needed in the field of public health, especially as polarization increases over time.


Discussion: Partisan differences impose a major threat to public health because it holds implications on public health policies and campaigns designed to increase compliance to COVID-19 related measures. Recognizing that politics and public health will remain intertwined, public health advocates must develop a constructive approach to navigating a dysfunctional political system when interacting with governmental officials.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction 1

1.1 Introduction and Rationale 1

1.1.1 Origins of SARS-CoV-2 1

1.1.2 Early Global Response 1

1.1.3 Early Pandemic Response in the United States 2

1.2 Problem Statement 3

1.3 Purpose Statement 5

1.4 Research Questions 6

1.5 Significance 6

1.6 Definitions of Terms 7

1.7 Abbreviations 9

Chapter 2: Literature Review 10

2.1 Incoherence of Federal Government During the Pandemic 10

2.2 Early Warning Signs of Novel Outbreak 11

2.3 Trump’s Presidential Leadership and Expertise 16

Chapter 3: Methods 22

3.1 Research Design 22

3.2 Literature Review 22

3.2.1 Inclusion Criteria 23

3.2.2 Exclusion Criteria 23

3.2.3 Limitations of Literature Review 23

3.3 Case Study 24

Chapter 4: Case Study Results 25

4.1 Political Polarization on Social Distancing Orders Across State Governments 25

4.2 Effect of Political Polarization on Public Perceptions in a Swing State 31

Chapter 5: Discussion 39

5.1 Case Study Limitations 42

5.2 Conclusion 43

References 44

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