Though COVID-19 cases are on the rise, Americans are less worried than they previously have been. Are we in a new phase of public attitudes about the pandemic? And how is this impacting Americans' behaviors? Gallup senior editor Megan Brenan joins the podcast to talk about Gallup's tracking since the pandemic began and where we are now.
Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.
Mohamed Younis 00:07
For Gallup, I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. This week, we check in on the state of the pandemic through the lens of public opinion. Megan Thee-Brenan is a senior editor at Gallup. Megan, welcome back to the show, my friend.
Megan Brenan 00:21
Thanks for having me, Mohamed.
Mohamed Younis 00:23
I really wanted you to come and talk to us about our COVID data because you've been so in the weeds, under the hood -- however you want to describe it -- in how we've tracked this since the very beginning. So let me just start there. When did we start asking about COVID? When did we start tracking this?
Megan Brenan 00:40
Well, we started in the very beginning, back in mid-March of 2020. We were trying to, we were watching as the situation was, was evolving, and we were trying to figure out what the best way would be for us to get a good measure of where the public was at and to be able to follow that. Now we didn't think we'd be following it as long as we are. But, so we decided that with our probability panel, the Gallup Panel, the second week of March in 2020, and we tracked weekly until about September of that year. And then we went to monthly tracking. And now we're at quarterly tracking because things are moving a little, a little more slowly since we have vaccines, and, but we still have things moving. And so we wanted to make sure that we'd be able to, to follow that.
Megan Brenan 01:30
So we have some really great trends on social distancing, on whether the situation is getting better or worse, worry about getting the disease and certain behaviors that people are following, back to the very beginning of the pandemic, which, which has been really terrific, and a great a great value-add, I think, to, to the conversation.
Mohamed Younis 01:50
It's also just been fascinating to see the many dimensions -- I mean we've all lived through this together -- of this pandemic. And it's just, it's felt almost over so many times, and then not so much. At least as of now, how concerned are people about the pandemic, about getting COVID? Where do we stand right now?
Megan Brenan 02:11
Well, it's interesting because, even though we know that omicron is, cases are pretty high, and a large popul -- a large part of the population has been sick or will be exposed because the mask mandates are down in most places -- there's, concern has, has steadied since earlier this year. So, a couple of months ago, we had concern fall to about 33 per, about a third of Americans said that they were worried about, they were very or somewhat worried about getting the coronavirus. But now we're down to 31% who are very or somewhat worried about being, about being infected -- which, as I said, it's, it's a little bit surprising to me, just because, it's, it's, infections are on the rise again, but we have not captured any, any rising concern, like we saw back in early January -- late December/early January, when omicron was really heating up.
Megan Brenan 03:20
So it's, concern is, I would say, you know, moderate right now. It's not as low as it was, say, about a year ago, last May-June, when things looked like, you know, they were going to open up and everything was going to be, we were in the clear. So that was, we, we went down to about 17% concern about getting COVID last June, and that was the lowest that we had tracked. But you know, we've also had as high as 59% back in that first year.
Mohamed Younis 03:51
You know, Megan, I was speaking to a reporter from, actually from your old stomping grounds, from The New York Times this week. And one of the conversations we're having about this kind of concern decline is whether, you know, COVID just means something different to us now than it did when this thing started. Now that, you know, I can out both of us, now that you and I have experienced this horrible disease but survived it, is, could that be part of kind of why the numbers are back high in terms of infections but the worry is not there?
Megan Brenan 04:29
I think so. I think that's a, that's a very astute observation. I think since deaths are nowhere near what they were early on in the pandemic, most people are vaccinated -- and by most, I say a majority of people are vaccinated -- people are pretty rational in their thinking about how dangerous this really is right now, this wave is, and how well protected they are. So I think you're right. I think that, that they see their friends, their family members getting sick and recovering -- some of them not even feeling symptoms. And, and so that, that means worry, you know, that, that makes them a little less worried.
Mohamed Younis 05:09
And of course, you know, more informed about who is at particular risk of, you know, not lowering kind of their concern or guard with regards to this disease. It's just amazing, just as the average citizen, like how much we've learned about all this since it started. One of the things that's changed recently is mask mandates. I know that that's something we've asked about, at least in the context of flying -- huge topic these days. Where is the public on wearing masks, let's say, on a plane?
Megan Brenan 05:39
So one of the great things about having this, this panel survey is that we can put questions on and take them off and kind of react to the news. And that's, that's what we did with this question. So we knew that there was going to be some -- that the mandate was going to be expiring. So before the poll went into the field, we figured, OK, we'll track what people are thinking about it. But then, you know, we kind of got, got a surprise when the judge in Florida struck down the mask mandate, the CDC's mask mandate. And so we decided that we would, we would ask two questions. The first was, Do you think the federal government should or should not require everyone over the age of two to wear a face mask when flying on an airplane? So now remember that this was, this was asked after the mandate had been struck down. So we got a pretty even split: We got 49% saying that It should be required and 51% saying that it should not be required. So there are big differences in, in this question on, looking at the demographics. So 81% of Democrats think that masks should be mandated; 13% of Republicans thought that they should be.
Megan Brenan 07:05
So the second question that we asked, then, was, Suppose you were free to choose whether to wear a face mask or not when traveling on an airplane. If you were traveling by airplane in the next few days, would you personally wear a face mask or not? And we had 60% of Americans saying that they would wear a face mask; 40% saying that they would not. This is also politically polarized, with 90% of Democrats saying they would; 22% of Republicans saying they would. And we also saw splits by gender, 67% of women versus 52% of men. Younger Americans were slightly more likely than those who are older to say that they would. So it, we see this split in the public, and I can tell you, I just flew back a couple of days ago, and I'm not sure about the 60/40 split on my plane. But there was definitely a mix of, of what was going on in in real life.
Mohamed Younis 08:06
It's funny you say that. I actually was just on the D.C. Metro right before we had this conversation. And it is remarkable how many more people are not wearing a mask, because that was a pretty consistent thing, at least in this city. You talked about the partisan divide that we've seen, really almost from the beginning, kind of, from the beginning of this pandemic. Is there anywhere, Megan, you've found or have noticed that that's eased a little bit? Or is it, are we basically like kind of where we were at the beginning of this thing?
Megan Brenan 08:40
This is the most surprising thing to me about the pandemic, and I continue to just kind of marvel at the fact that opinions on this pandemic -- which is affecting all of us, regardless of our political affiliation -- are so sharply different, based on partisanship. So I have not seen any significant differences. And, you know, we've seen them across the board on, whether it's behaviors such as masking or, you know, people getting together in groups, you'd see far fewer Democrats doing that than Republicans, and even just in their general attitudes about, about the pandemic. So whether they think it's getting better or worse, whether they worry about getting it. So it's been, it's been really eye opening to me. If you think back, and that this is kind of where, where my head went when all this was starting was, OK, well this, you know, we we've got a national emergency here.
Megan Brenan 09:53
The last really big one of these was 9/11. It was obviously very different, but it was, it was something that in, in the polling world we saw a real rally effect. So we saw Americans of all stripes come together and unite. And, I guess naively, I thought that was gonna happen this time around. And we have definitely not seen that happen. And even as things improved and got, you know, then got worse, again, we, you know, we just kept seeing this, this remarkable split in, in partisans' attitudes. So I kind of feel like there, if this doesn't do it, then I don't know, whatever could do it -- not that I want to find out, but I think it's pretty remarkable that, that this is what's, this is what's happened.
Mohamed Younis 10:47
And I should note, it's so, it's so great to get your perspective, Megan, because you really are, one of the most, I think, unsung heroes of American public opinion. Like you've been doing this for a while, even though you are extremely young. And, and it is, it is, we've learned so much, I think, about America's politics through this COVID crisis.
Megan Brenan 11:12
It's not pretty.
Mohamed Younis 11:13
It's not pretty, but one of the things that I learned reading your work throughout this crisis -- and I know that we didn't ask it again in this most recent version of the survey -- was kind of comparing people's confidence or trust in local leaders versus national leaders to like do the right thing. And that was a positive kind of ray of something for me. Can you talk us through kind of the dichotomy that we've been seeing?
Megan Brenan 11:37
Yeah, I mean that's kind of, that, that's something that, that we see in polling on other subjects as well. So, so what we have seen when we're, when we've been doing this, when we've asked the question -- which, as you said, we didn't do this time -- is that ratings of national leaders tend to be pretty negative, and largely because a large swath of one party or the other (and they take with them a fairly large swath of independents) have a negative opinion. But when things get down to the more local level, even statewide, we saw, you know, governors getting better ratings than, than national leaders. But that, the governor, the level, that level of, of leaders is still pretty affected by partisanship. When you get down lower, to more local levels, people are much more inclined to be supportive of those people and approve of what they've been doing.
Megan Brenan 12:40
So now we see that in other measures. We see that in our congressional vote question. So when we ask if you're, if you, how you feel about Congress, overall approval of Congress, we get ridiculously low numbers of people who approve of Congress. But then, well, how about your own congressman? How do you feel about your own congressman? And that's similar, that it's, it's very high, similar to the COVID phenomenon, so it's very high numbers of people who approve of their own representative. And similarly, ratings of the economy. So how's the national economy? Oh, it's terrible. How is your own personal financial situation? Well, it's pretty good. Crime in your, you know, in the country, how's crime? It's terrible. But your neighborhood? My neighborhood's great. So people tend to see their own situation a little differently than they do the, the whole country. And I think a large, a large reason for that is because politics enters into it when you get to that higher level, and it's, it's less, it's less in the mix when you're, when you're more local.
Mohamed Younis 13:44
It's remarkable that something as local as a virus breaking out -- I mean, there's nothing more local than that -- it really has, it got taken away in a national conversation that wasn't connected to, you know, like what's happening in your city? We all saw, at least in the beginning, New York was hit so hard, and it just really depended on where you were and when it was that really defined your experience with the pandemic. For my last question, Megan, I just want to ask kind of a crude question: Is it safe to say that Americans right now are more concerned about the economy than COVID? And I know, throughout the past couple of years, those have kind of been the same thing at times, based on the economic impacts of this pandemic. But right now, are people thinking more about like their job and their bank account than getting COVID, is that safe?
Megan Brenan 14:31
Definitely. So, so the overarching, when we ask a question monthly, we ask an open-ended question, "What's the most important problem facing the United States?" And from April of 2020 until, I guess it was February, I think, of this year, COVID was either one or two on their list. Government, which goes back to the, the conversation we were just having, and Americans' distaste, displeasure with government right now has at times been more important to Americans. So it's been more of an important problem. But at least COVID ranked right up near the top.
Megan Brenan 15:22
So in March, that was the first time that we saw COVID fall below the No. 2 or 3 spot. And that has persisted again this April, and government remains the top concern. But then, if you, if you look at the economic measures in the results, 17% of Americans say inflation and 12% say the, say economy, some, some economic measure. So it's, the economy has clearly subsumed the discussion here. And it's, you know, when you combine inflation and the other economy numbers, they surpass the government concerns. So yeah, I think the, the economy is now a separate issue from COVID, and it is definitely at the forefront of Americans' minds right now.
Mohamed Younis 16:25
Megan, thank you so much for coming in and breaking this all down for us. I don't want our listeners to think that we're in any way minimizing what this pandemic is doing still. And in that vein, I actually want to dedicate this episode to my neighbor Sarah, who we lost in my community just a few weeks ago to COVID. And I want to thank you, Megan Brenan, senior editor at Gallup, for being with us. It's always great to have you.
Megan Brenan 16:52
Thanks for having me.
Mohamed Younis 17:00
That's our show. Thank you for tuning in. To subscribe and stay up to date with our latest conversations, just search for "The Gallup Podcast" wherever you podcast. And for more key findings from Gallup News, go to news.gallup.com or follow us on Twitter @gallupnews. If you have suggestions for the show, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.