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Background: Individuals’ stress in responding to the current COVID-19 pandemic may be exacerbated by information uncertainty driven by inconsistent, unverified, and conflicting news from various sources. The current study aims to test if information uncertainty during the COVID-19 outbreak was related to acute stress disorder (ASD) over and above other psychosocial stressors.

Methods: An anonymous online survey was conducted with 7800 college students throughout China from January 31 through February 11, 2020. Existing scales were modified to measure ASD and six potential stressors including information uncertainty during the COVID-19 outbreak. Hierarchical regression analysis was conducted to assess the unique association of information uncertainty with ASD. To minimize the effect of large sample size and also to get a sense of whether the effects of information uncertainty were similar to people at the center of the epidemic, we repeated the hierarchical regression among 10% of the students who were randomly selected from the entire sample (“10% random sample”; n = 780) and 226 students from Hubei Province where the outbreak started.

Results: Information uncertainty was highly prevalent among the respondents (64%). It was significantly associated with ASD beyond other key variables and potential stressors across three samples. In the hierarchical regression among the entire sample, demographic variables accounted for 9.4% of the variance in ASD. The other five stressors added 5.1% of the variance. The information uncertainty (β = .159; p < .001) explained an additional 2.1% of the variance. Likewise, the information uncertainty explained an additional 2.1 and 3.4% of the variance in ASD beyond all other variables among the 10% random sample (β = .165; p < .001) and the Hubei sample (β = .196; p < .01), respectively.

Conclusion: Information uncertainty is a unique correlate of psychological stress during the COVID-19 outbreak. Reducing information uncertainty is essential not only for halting virus transmission but also for mitigating negative impacts of the pandemic on people’s psychosocial wellbeing. Transparent, timely, and accurate communication can reduce public confusion, fear, and stress. Capacity building in governments, communities, and media outlets to prevent, reduce and manage information uncertainty should be a critical part of the response to an emerging global health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

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APA Citation

Lin, D., Friedman, D., Qiao, S., Tam, C., Li, X., & Li, X. (2020). Information uncertainty: a correlate for acute stress disorder during the COVID-19 outbreak in China. BMC Public Health, 20(1867).