Background: South Korea is among the best-performing countries in tackling the coronavirus pandemic by using mass drive-through testing, face mask use, and extensive social distancing. However, understanding the patterns of risk perception could also facilitate effective risk communication to minimize the impacts of disease spread during this crisis. Objective: We attempt to explore patterns of community health risk perceptions of COVID-19 in South Korea using internet search data. Methods: Google Trends (GT) and NAVER relative search volumes (RSVs) data were collected using COVID-19-related terms in the Korean language and were retrieved according to time, gender, age groups, types of device, and location. Online queries were compared to the number of daily new COVID-19 cases and tests reported in the Kaggle open-access data set for the time period of December 5, 2019, to May 31, 2020. Time-lag correlations calculated by Spearman rank correlation coefficients were employed to assess whether correlations between new COVID-19 cases and internet searches were affected by time. We also constructed a prediction model of new COVID-19 cases using the number of COVID-19 cases, tests, and GT and NAVER RSVs in lag periods (of 1-3 days). Single and multiple regressions were employed using backward elimination and a variance inflation factor of <5. Results: The numbers of COVID-19-related queries in South Korea increased during local events including local transmission, approval of coronavirus test kits, implementation of coronavirus drive-through tests, a face mask shortage, and a widespread campaign for social distancing as well as during international events such as the announcement of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization. Online queries were also stronger in women (r=0.763-0.823; P<.001) and age groups ≤29 years (r=0.726-0.821; P<.001), 30-44 years (r=0.701-0.826; P<.001), and ≥50 years (r=0.706-0.725; P<.001). In terms of spatial distribution, internet search data were higher in affected areas. Moreover, greater correlations were found in mobile searches (r=0.704-0.804; P<.001) compared to those of desktop searches (r=0.705-0.717; P<.001), indicating changing behaviors in searching for online health information during the outbreak. These varied internet searches related to COVID-19 represented community health risk perceptions. In addition, as a country with a high number of coronavirus tests, results showed that adults perceived coronavirus test-related information as being more important than disease-related knowledge. Meanwhile, younger, and older age groups had different perceptions. Moreover, NAVER RSVs can potentially be used for health risk perception assessments and disease predictions. Adding COVID-19-related searches provided by NAVER could increase the performance of the model compared to that of the COVID-19 case-based model and potentially be used to predict epidemic curves. Conclusions: The use of both GT and NAVER RSVs to explore patterns of community health risk perceptions could be beneficial for targeting risk communication from several perspectives, including time, population characteristics, and location.
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