"I honestly think it's a hodge-podge," he said. "There are clearly people who listen carefully and go out and seek more information. ... But there are lots of people who seem to have fly-by information. They hear a sound bite here a sound bite there, [but] they don't read beyond the first couple of paragraphs of an article because it's just too demanding."
Indeed, polls have revealed plenty of misconceptions among the public. According to a previous Harvard poll released May 1, also led by Blendon, 22 percent of people mistakenly thought there's a vaccine for the swine flu, 29 percent thought you could get it from an infected person who's more than 30 feet away and 13 percent of people thought you could get it from eating pork -- all things that contradict guidelines of the World Health Organization and the CDC.
But at public health meeting last week in Nashville, Schaffner was surprised to see other factors that might be confusing the public about swine flu -- namely, politics and emotion.
"The first two schools that were closed here in Nashville were private schools," he said. "Well, this is consistent with some exposures to Mexico and people who were traveling back and forth like the school in New York City."
A week later, after studying the swine flu virus, Schaffner said it became clear that the swine flu was a milder virus than previously thought. Indeed, last Tuesday the CDC recommended that schools should no longer close their doors to prevent swine flu.
Yet when Schaffner worked with local public health officials to explain the situation to those at Nashville's public schools, he was surprised to hear some parents didn't care about the new information.
"Some parents at that school weighed in with their opinion, that 'you're going to treat this school the same way you treat the private school,'" said Schaffner. "They interpreted the news on the virus as, 'You're more attentive to private schools than you are to public schools.'"
Schaffner could only guess that the parents hadn't kept up with the news -- or that the news information didn't mean that much to them.
"I was very taken by this notion that someone could think that there was disparity or intent, but that had not occurred to any one of us in public health," he said. "All these questions have social and political dimensions that we in public health may not appreciate."
Many also may be using information about the swine flu to drive home their own agendas.
"I have seen a fair amount of anti-Mexican ranting that, in some cases, is flagrantly racist," Garrett said. "And much of the online info I have seen is directly sponsored by a manufacturer of a product related to disease."
Still, for better or for worse, people continue to follow the news on swine flu. Both of Blendon's polls revealed that more than three out of four people said they continued to follow news of the outbreak closely -- a sign that curiosity about this infectious topic may not fade away anytime soon.