Since the outbreak of novel coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19), health communication has played a critical role in the process of disease prevention. Based on the concepts of health literacy and protection motivation theory, this study longitudinally examined the relationship between general health literacy measured immediately before the COVID-19 outbreak, and COVID-19–related information utilization, health literacy, beliefs and protective behaviors during the subsequent year in the Japanese general population. The participants were 767 Japanese residents who completed self-administered questionnaire surveys in January 2020 and February 2021. Based on the hypotheses, we constructed and tested a path model to predict the adoption of protective behaviors. Higher health literacy in 2020 was significantly related to higher COVID-19-related health literacy in 2021, which, in turn, was related to the adoption of recommended protective behaviors both directly and indirectly through threat and coping appraisal. Coping appraisal, but not threat appraisal, significantly differed by health literacy level. Generic health literacy skills for accessing, understanding and applying health information may enable people to better adapt to specific health risks. Our findings provide guidance for future health literacy education and health risk communication in populations with different health literacy levels.

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