Poll: As Coronavirus Spreads, Fewer Americans See Pandemic As A Real Threat

Mar 17, 2020
Originally published on March 17, 2020 1:32 pm

In the face of the coronavirus worsening across the U.S. and reordering the daily life of millions of Americans, fewer people view the pandemic as a real threat, according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

Just about 56% of Americans consider the coronavirus a "real threat," representing a drop of 10 percentage points from last month. At the same time, a growing number of Americans think the coronavirus is being "blown out of proportion."

The differences between political parties are stark, with a majority of Republicans saying it is overblown and the vast majority of Democrats considering it a legitimate threat.

"Since the pandemic has taken root and grown in the United States, Democrats and Republicans are now poles apart," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute of Public Opinion. "The consequences of these differing perspectives are shaping how people are responding to calls for action."

Overall, fewer than half of U.S. adults are changing behaviors such as eating from home more often or canceling plans to avoid crowds, as recommended.

The poll was conducted Friday and Saturday, beginning the same day President Trump declared a national emergency, and before Tuesday's stricter guidelines from the administration on social distancing.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has cautioned, "The worst is yet ahead for us."

Public health and elected officials have been warning that Americans need to take steps to reduce the risk of spreading the disease.

Views on the threat level

In February, a little more than a quarter of U.S. adults believed the coronavirus was being blown out of proportion. Now, that number has risen to nearly 40% of respondents.

Pollsters found that both shifts are largely driven by changes in opinion by Republicans. For instance, 72% of Republicans saw the coronavirus as a real threat in early February, but that figure has now plummeted to 40% of Republicans now believing the deadly virus is a serious menace.

And a majority of Republicans — 54% — now say the response to the coronavirus is overblown, a significant jump from last month, when about 23% of Republicans held that view.

Fewer independents, too, see the coronavirus as a real threat. Fifty percent of them view it as such now, compared with 64% of independents last month who said the virus was legitimately threatening.

Democrats remained the most unchanged on this question. An increasing number of them — 76% — now say the danger of the coronavirus is real, up from 70% last month.

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Respondents' rationale

Poll respondent Patricia Bell, a 68-year-old Republican living outside Pittsburgh, said the widespread closure of businesses and near-lockdowns in some cities are measures that she views as too extreme.

"Obviously there's a concern for the elderly, but do I agree with the reaction? I think it's a serious issue, but I think to some extent, we've overhyped it," the retired customer service employee told NPR in a follow-up interview.

"I don't know that what's happening in Europe is necessarily going to happen in the United States," Bell said. "I'm cautiously optimistic we're going to nip it in the bud. I'm more concerned for the economy."

Respondent Harry Kenck, a 51-year-old securities trader living in Montana, echoed that view. The self-identified conservative said he believes the hit to the economy is more unsettling than the public health repercussions.

"This will do a lot more damage to our economy than it will do to our population," Kenck said.

He said the media's focus on the rising count of reported coronavirus cases and sweeping response from government agencies overshadows stories of those who recovered from the respiratory disease and accounts of how communities are banding together to combat the crisis.

"Is this a society-killer? Is it going to destroy entire countries, governments and economies? Is this the beginning of the end of the world? I don't think so," he said.

But Democrat Anne Tendyke, 60, said the threat needs to be taken seriously.

"Just look at the numbers, look at the history, look at the data," said Tendyke, a financial analyst who lives in Roxboro, N.C.

"We don't have the infrastructure to manage this level of illness. It's not like the flu. Because the flu comes and goes. People have immunity to the flu. Not everyone gets the flu. There are immunizations for the flu," she said. "This is a whole different animal."

Changing your behavior? Depends on your party

Despite a growing number of Americans dismissing the coronavirus as a serious threat, 7 in 10 U.S. adults said they were either concerned or very concerned about the spread of the coronavirus to their communities.

That's a notable increase from last month's figure, when 44% expressed concern about the spread of the virus.

But how that apprehension affects day-to-day life depends on political party affiliation, according to the poll.

Take canceling plans. About 48% of Americans said they or someone in their household have done so to avoid crowds.

Some 59% of Democrats report they have made a point to dodge large gatherings, while 60% of Republicans and 54% of independents have not.

The same party division is illustrated in something as routine as choosing to eat at home versus dining out. About 60% of Democrats say they are eating in more often because of the virus, while 63% of Republicans and 60% of independents are not. (A number of states have recently banned eating out, limiting restaurants to takeout to enforce social distancing.)

The poll also found that 42% of Americans reported having stocked up on food or supplies, with more than 6 in 10 Republicans and independents saying there is no need. Democrats were essentially split on the topic.

Roughly a third of Americans have changed their travel plans because of the contagion. Democrats (38%) are more likely to change their travel plans than Republicans and independents (both 26%).

As for working Americans, only about 1 in 3 reported changing their daily work routines because of the virus, with a majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents saying they had not made adjustments.

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This survey of 835 adults was conducted Friday and Saturday using live telephone callers via landline and cellphone. It has a margin of error of +/- 4.8 percentage points. The survey includes 784 registered voters. Where registered voters are referred to, the margin of error is +/- 4.9 percentage points.

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