When Did Americans Stop Caring About COVID-19?
Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.
Last month, President Biden said what many Americans have long been thinking: “The pandemic is over.” With vaccinations, broader immunity and better treatments, the death toll from this virus is nowhere near what it was at the peak of the pandemic, and many Americans are returning to their pre-pandemic ways of life. As we head into the cold, flu and, most likely, COVID-19 season, as well as into an election that is about basically everything but COVID-19, we wondered: When did Americans stop caring about the coronavirus?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when public concern around the pandemic shifted for good, as there have been several inflection points. One way of seeing this is by looking at monthly surveys, like one from Axios/Ipsos that started in March 2020, to illustrate the crest and fall of Americans’ concerns around the pandemic. In the first three weeks of April 2020 — the thick of lockdown — just 19 percent of Americans said they had visited friends or relatives in the past week. That number has steadily risen over the two and a half years since, dipping occasionally when a new wave emerged. For example, an average of 62 percent of Americans said they visited friends or family during the summer of 2021, but that average dropped to 54 percent during the winter 2021 — the omicron-variant wave. And in the chart below, you can also see how the share of Americans who say they’re self-quarantining and wearing masks has declined, while the share who say they’ve returned to their pre-pandemic lives has increased:
One switch happened in June 2022, when the share of Americans who said they’d returned to their pre-pandemic lives rose higher than the percentage who said they still wore a mask outside the home at least sometimes. National survey data from the Annenberg Public Policy Center plots a similar course. In September 2021, 52 percent of Americans said they often or always wore a mask indoors when in contact with people outside their household, while just 11 percent said they never did. Those numbers plunged this year, with 27 percent of Americans in July 2022 saying they now never wore a mask, while just 11 percent said they always did. Likewise, in January 2022, 16 percent of Americans said their lives had already returned to their pre-pandemic normal, while 35 percent expected they were still more than a year away from that return. By July, 41 percent of Americans said their lives had returned to normal, and 19 percent said that normal was still a year away. Google trends also show that search interest in COVID-19 is at a pandemic low.1
We can also chart this shift in attention by looking at not just the poll responses but also the poll questions. In March 2021, half of all national polls tracked by FiveThirtyEight featured at least one COVID-19-related question. That share has slowly ticked down as other issues, such as inflation, have become more prevalent. Last month, just 14 percent of polls had at least one COVID-19 question, while 22 percent asked about inflation.
Starting in April 2021, you can see pollsters gradually asking more questions about other topics, while asking about COVID-19 less frequently. And largely, this tracks with Americans' views of what issues are most important to them. In April 2020, 45 percent of Americans named the COVID-19 pandemic as their top concern, according to Gallup. And in January this year, 20 percent of Americans said the pandemic was the biggest concern, while just 8 percent said the high cost of living or inflation. By March, a higher share of Americans named inflation (17 percent) as a top concern than the share who named the pandemic (3 percent). And inflation has remained steady, with around 17 percent of Americans saying it's their top concern since this past March and an average of 37 percent of Americans listing some kind of economic issue as their top concern in the same timeframe.
The ebbing concern around COVID-19 is also reflected in the apathy around receiving booster shots. Gone are the days of strategically logging into your local pharmacy’s website at midnight to secure a vaccine appointment, or driving hundreds of miles just to get a jab. While nearly 80 percent of Americans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 68 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, just under 49 percent of Americans had received their first booster shot, as of Sept. 28. And a September poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 51 percent of U.S. adults had heard “a little” or “nothing” about the new COVID-19 booster shot that is formulated to protect against the omicron variant. In that same survey, only 5 percent said they had gotten the updated booster, while 27 percent said they plan to get it “as soon as possible.”
And yet, as much as we all have been eager to get back to normal — and despite Biden’s proclamation — hundreds of Americans continue to die of COVID-19 every day, and many immunocompromised Americans report feeling abandoned by others’ more relaxed approach to the virus these days. So it’s clear that while most Americans think the pandemic is over, many don’t yet have the luxury of that thinking.
Other polling bites
- The Supreme Court continues to suffer in the eyes of public opinion, according to a Monmouth University poll conducted Sept. 21-25. More Americans disapproved of the job the court is doing (54 percent) than those who approved (37 percent), a trend that has held steady since May. Meanwhile, two-thirds of Americans were on board with implementing term limits for the justices, a position that enjoys relative bipartisan approval: Eighty-six percent of Democrats, 63 percent of independents and 51 percent of Republicans supported such a measure. However, the response to the idea of court expansion remains highly partisan, with 67 percent of Democrats saying they’d like to see more seats added, compared with only 30 percent of independents and 14 percent of Republicans.
- Politics appear to be a lose-lose situation. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that a majority of Americans on both sides of the aisle felt that their party is losing more than winning on issues important to them, including 81 percent of Republicans and 66 percent of Democrats. That hasn’t always been the case in recent years. A majority of Republicans in 2019 (54 percent) and 2020 (69 percent) — i.e., when Donald Trump was still in office — felt their party was winning on issues more often than not. But that optimistic outlook hasn’t replicated for Democrats under Biden: Only 34 percent of conservative/moderate Democrats and 29 percent of liberal Democrats thought their party was seeing success on major issues important to them.
- Just under half of Americans (45 percent) believed that young people today will experience a better standard of living than their parents, per a UChicago Harris/AP-NORC poll conducted Aug. 25-29. Young people themselves, or adults ages 18 to 44, were even less optimistic, at 39 percent. However, the breakdown looks a bit different by race. While only 41 percent of white Americans and 44 percent of Hispanic Americans had a positive outlook for the next generation, a slightly greater share of Black Americans (54 percent) held out hope for young Americans.
- Americans are split on whether artificial-intelligence advancements in producing hyperrealistic art are a good thing for society, according to an Oct. 5 YouGov poll. And while 31 percent view such technology positively and 27 percent do so negatively, a plurality (42 percent) just wasn’t sure. Additional data from YouGov found that a minority of Americans (36 percent) said they’ve ever seen a realistic, AI-generated image of a person, while a vast majority hadn’t used AI-driven image-generating websites themselves: Seventy-three percent of Americans had never done so, including 58 percent ages 18 to 29 and 57 percent between ages 30 and 44.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,2 42.7 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 51.5 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -8.8 points). At this time last week, 42.0 percent approved and 52.2 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -10.2 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 43.0 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.8 percent, for a net approval rating of -9.8 points.
In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,3 Democrats currently lead Republicans by 1.0 point (45.3 percent to 44.3 percent). A week ago, Democrats led by 1.3 points (45.3 percent to 44.1 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 0.9 points (44.8 percent to 43.9 percent).
Mary Radcliffe contributed research.