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Background: Individual perceptions of personal and national threats posed by COVID-19 shaped initial response to the pandemic. The aim of this study was to investigate the changes in residents' awareness about COVID-19 and to characterize those who were more aware and responsive during the early stages of the pandemic in Louisiana.

Methods: In response to the mounting threat of COVID-19, we added questions to an ongoing food preference study held at Louisiana State University from March 3rd through March 12th, 2020. We asked how likely it was that the spread of the coronavirus will cause a national public health crisis and participants' level of concern about contracting COVID-19 by attending campus events. We used regression and classification tree analysis to identify correlations between these responses and (a) national and local COVID case counts; (b) personal characteristics and (c) randomly assigned information treatments provided as part of the food preference study.

Results: We found participants expressed a higher likelihood of an impending national crisis as the number of national and local confirmed cases increased. However, concerns about contracting COVID-19 by attending campus events rose more slowly in response to the increasing national and local confirmed case count. By the end of this study on March 12th, 2020 although 89% of participants agreed that COVID-19 would likely cause a public health crisis, only 65% of the participants expressed concerns about contracting COVID-19 from event attendance. These participants were significantly more likely to be younger students, in the highest income group, and to have participated in the study by responding to same-day, in-person flyer distribution.

Conclusions: These results provide initial insights about the perceptions of the COVID-19 public health crisis during its early stages in Louisiana. We concluded with suggestions for universities and similar institutions as in-person activities resume in the absence of widespread vaccination.

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