How did Americans fare in doing their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19? A new survey has found that about 40% weren't always quite honest about their COVID-19 status or did not comply with public health measures.

For the study, published Monday in JAMA Network Open, researchers looked at the prevalence of Americans' "misrepresentation and non-adherence" to the public health measures against COVID-19. They also looked at people's reasoning behind their actions.

"Public health measures have the potential to dramatically reduce the spread and impact of the disease, but their success depends on the public's willingness to be honest about and adherent to these measures," the researchers wrote.

To do this, they conducted a national survey on a sample of 1,733 U.S. adults in December 2021. They asked them if they ever misrepresented their COVID-19 or vaccination status or told someone that they were following the public health measures when they weren't, the University of Utah Health Services (U of U Health) noted in a news release.

They were also asked whether they broke health protocols during the pandemic, such as avoiding getting tested or breaking quarantine rules. Those who reported misrepresentation or non-adherence answered "yes or no" to a list of reasons behind their actions.

The researchers found that 41.6% of the respondents reported misrepresentation and/or non-adherence to at least one of the nine different types they were asked about. Some of the most commonly reported incidents were breaking quarantine rules and telling someone they were with or were about to meet that they were "taking more COVID-19 preventive measures than they actually were."

Others avoided getting tested even when they thought they might have the disease or said they were vaccinated even if they were not. There were also those who did not mention that they had, or might have, COVID-19 upon getting screened to enter a doctor's office or a public place.

And when it comes to the reasons behind their actions, researchers found that the most common responses were: "I wanted my life to feel 'normal,'" "I wanted to exercise my freedom to do what I want," "It's no one else's business," "I didn't feel very sick" and "I was following guidance from a public figure I trust." Such public figures include politicians, celebrities or someone they've seen on the news.

Some also noted that they "didn't think COVID-19 was real" or "was a big deal." Younger participants as well as those who had "greater disbelief in science" were more likely to misrepresent or not adhere to the public health measures.

"Similarly, greater disbelief in science has been an important factor associated with non-adherence to health behaviors during the pandemic (eg, masking, vaccination uptake) and beyond," the researchers wrote. "These groups may represent an important focus for efforts to address misrepresentation and non-adherence."

According to the researchers, having "nearly half" of the respondents report such misrepresentation and/or non-adherence may have rather dire consequences. It may not only prolong the pandemic but may also put other people at risk, some of whom may be quite vulnerable to the disease.

"Some individuals may think if they fib about their COVID-19 status once or twice, it's not a big deal," study senior author Angela Fagerlin of U of U Health said in the news release. "But if, as our study suggests, nearly half of us are doing it, that's a significant problem that contributes to prolonging the pandemic."

"When people are dishonest about their COVID-19 status or what precautions they are taking, it can increase the spread of disease in their community," study co-lead author Andrea Gurmankin Levy of U of U Health added. "For some people, particularly before we had COVID vaccines, that can mean death."

The results of the study show that misrepresentation and non-adherence "constitutes a serious public health challenge" during the pandemic, the researchers said. And it highlights the concerns that people had when it comes to public health protocols.

This, according to the researchers, shows the need to have a look at the strategies to educate the public on the importance of honesty and following public health measures. Furthermore, it "underscores" the important role that public figures have in these measures.