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USF-led poll shows Covid still tops America’s fears, most believe worst is to come

Mark Parker

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Pinellas County emergency management officials recently released a 90-page report detailing the county's response to the Covid pandemic. File image.

Researchers with the University of South Florida have released the results of a nationwide public opinion poll showing that almost two years into the pandemic, Covid-19 and its variants still top the list of American fears.

Dr. Stephen Neely, associate professor of public affairs and coordinator of the Leadership and Public Service program, led the poll for USF. The national survey included a representative sample of 1,000 voter-eligible participants across America that closely align with U.S. Census demographics.

Questions represented various topics surrounding the Covid pandemic and other important public policy issues dominating the national conversation. Neely said this is the fifth Covid-related public policy survey he has led over the last two years, yet he still found some surprising results.

“Really, the motivation is to keep public decision-makers informed about public opinion as it evolves,” said Neely.

While the poll clearly illustrated the ever-deepening partisan divide plaguing the country, one issue most Americans did agree upon was their continued fear of the coronavirus. Over a third of respondents (32%) said the pandemic is still the most pressing issue facing the U.S. today. Almost three-quarters (74%) said they are either “somewhat” or “very concerned” about emerging variants.

For comparison, just 14% said the economy was the most important issue, and only 7% said the same about inflation. Neely called those findings his first big takeaway from the survey.

“With the Omicron surge over the holidays, it’s really catapulted Covid back into the forefront of people’s minds,” said Neely. “If the economy and inflation were kind of creeping up as the most important issue toward the end of 2021, the surge of Covid over the holidays has really brought it back to everyone’s attention.”

Neely said perhaps the most alarming statistic to emerge from the detailed survey is that just 26% of respondents believe the worst part of the pandemic is over. Over 43% believe the worst is yet to come, while 30% said they neither agreed nor disagreed.

“The majority of people don’t think the worst is behind us yet,” said Neely. “That means there’s some pessimism, unfortunately, about whether or not we’ve gotten ahead of this and whether we’re ready or not to move on from Covid.”

Dr. Stephen Neely, associate professor for the USF School of Public Affairs, led the nationwide survey. Photo courtesy of usf.edu.

Neely said another big takeaway is the entrenchment of partisan positions. He noted that research shows decidedly different views from Republicans and Democrats regarding Covid policy throughout the pandemic, and those differing opinions have now moved from “somewhat” responses to “strong” responses in survey parlance.

Neely used the survey question regarding the federal workplace vaccine mandate, recently dismissed by the Supreme Court, as an example.

“We had about two-thirds of people responding strongly for or strongly against,” said Neely. “People have very strong opinions at this point about what should be done, whereas those opinions might have been a little more underdeveloped over the last couple of years.

“We see people really digging into those partisan stances now.”

Neely said he has witnessed polarization throughout the pandemic, and although he hoped people would start to find more common ground on Covid, he was not surprised by the survey’s findings.

Neely said researchers were also not surprised at the results regarding President Joe Biden’s job approval. He expected presidential job approval to come in under 50% due to the ongoing pandemic and inflation concerns. Biden’s best total approval rating was on his response to the pandemic, at 44.1%. The president’s worst total disapproval rating was on immigration and border policy, with 58.7%.

“It’s a rough time right now for the Biden administration in terms of public opinion,” said Neely. “Certainly, you have to recognize that some of the expectations to resolve some of these issues over the course of a year are probably unrealistic.”

Neely said that Covid fatigue and stress stemming from enduring a global pandemic for two years provides an interesting aspect to the poll’s findings. While this survey did not specifically ask questions regarding Covid fatigue and pandemic PTSD, Neely said researchers know it is prevalent from previous studies.

“We know that’s going on,” said Neely. “But at the same time, we see people saying – the majority, three-quarters of people saying – ‘let’s keep up the mitigation measures.’

“There’s fatigue, there’s weariness, but that means people have not given up the fight, so to speak.”

The willingness to keep up that fight largely follows party lines. For example, 94% of Democrats said that mitigation measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing are still necessary, while only 49% of Republicans agree. Although 83% of Democrats believe vaccines effectively protect Americans from Covid, just 41% of Republicans agree.

The partisan divide also extends to concerns for the country’s future. Republicans view the national debt (93%) and foreign adversaries (90%) as the most significant threats to America moving forward. Democrats were more likely to view climate change (93%) and racism (91%) as the most pressing issues in the nation’s future.

Paradoxically, a bipartisan majority (87%) said rampant partisanship and political polarization were a significant threat to the country’s future. Americans also agreed that the federal government must address the national debt (87%).

After conducting similar surveys throughout the last two years, Neely said his overarching message to the public would be to “please talk to your doctor.”

“A lot of people approach Covid as if it’s a political issue rather than a medical issue,” said Neely. “It is a medical issue; it is a virus. We encourage everyone to talk to their doctor and make decisions about what’s right for them based on those conversations, rather than based on political views.”

The survey utilized a representative sample of 1,000 eligible voters across the country between Jan. 6-10. Results are reported with a 95% confidence level and a 3% margin of error. Complete survey results can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

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