From New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.
Today: In a recent poll, The Times set out to understand how Americans are thinking about the pandemic as they headed into a third year. I spoke with my colleague David Leonhardt about what the poll ended up revealing about how ready or not the country is to have a new conversation about how to go on living with the virus.
It’s Wednesday, January 26.
David, you have been at The New York Times for two decades, covering economics, overseeing all of our Washington coverage, writing an op ed column. But this is actually your first appearance on The Daily, because as we were creating this show, you were off creating your own new approach to the news, which was a newsletter called The Morning.
And it’s become a very important part of how many people understand the pandemic. You have taken a very data-driven approach to helping readers understand where we are or where we aren’t at any given moment in these past two years. And all of which is to say, welcome to The Daily and I’m sorry it has taken so long.
Well, it’s great to be here, Michael. As a longtime listener of New York talk radio, I’m reminded of the phrase “longtime listener, first-time caller,” or “first and long.”
First and long. Love it. So the reason we want to talk to you today is because as part of your coverage of the virus, David, you decided to commission a public opinion poll about Americans’ views of the pandemic. So just to start, what was your goal with this poll? Why a pandemic poll? And why now?
Because it seems like we might be at a turning point with Covid. And I think there are a few reasons for that. So first of all, a lot of people have put a lot of effort into avoiding getting Covid. But Omicron makes that a lot harder, because it’s just so contagious. And so there are people out there who tried really hard to avoid Covid and are now saying, you know what, I just have to admit that I’m probably going to get it and be OK with that.
And that’s understandable, because the second thing about Omicron is that it tends to be milder than earlier versions of the virus. It can still be severe for people who are not vaccinated and for a small number of people who are immunocompromised or very elderly. But for the vast majority of people, if you are vaccinated and you get Omicron, you are not going to get very sick.
In the United States, at least, we now have virtually universal access to vaccines. Anyone who’s old enough and wants to be vaccinated can now be vaccinated.
And so when you put all this together, you realize, wait a second, we might be at a pivot point with Covid in which it goes from being this horrible, deadly, life-dominating pandemic to something that is more endemic — to something that looks more like things that we deal with all the time without shutting down daily life, like the flu.
And so given all that, we wanted to do a poll. And we wanted to go out there and say to Americans, how are you feeling about Covid right now? How worried are you still about getting sick? What do you think governments should do in response to Covid?
So we asked Morning Consult, which is a survey firm, to go out and conduct a national poll. And they did so. They interviewed more than 4,400 Americans all across the country from different demographic groups. And they basically said, how are you thinking about Covid now? How are you thinking about what the future of Covid is going to be?
So what you’re saying is that this is a statistically sound effort to take the temperature of the American public on exactly how it’s thinking about Covid at this moment that might or might not be a pivot in the pandemic. And given that question you had going into this poll, are we at a turning point? Tell us about what you found.
The first thing I’d say is there is no one thing we found. Americans’ attitudes toward Covid differ based on all kinds of factors, the same way our attitudes on all sorts of subjects differ, often quite starkly. But I would say that even though I’ve spent most of the last two years writing about Covid and reporting about it, there were still parts of this poll that surprised me. And there’s parts I do think raised some questions about exactly how we’re going to pivot and when we’re going to pivot, whether we’re weeks away from a pivot or still many months away from a pivot.
And the three issues that really raised those questions in my mind were, one, about how people of different age groups are thinking about Covid risk. The second was about how people with different vaccination status are thinking about Covid risk. And the third one was how people are thinking about schools right now and how they should be operating.
So let’s start with what you just said were surprising views of the pandemic by age group. What did the poll find?
I think this is really remarkable. We found a striking degree of similarity among older and younger people about how worried they were about getting sick from Covid. So 17% of people aged 65 and above said they were very worried about getting sick from Covid, and 23% of people 18 to 34 said they were very worried.
So younger people were slightly more likely to say that they were very worried about getting sick from Covid than older people. Now, when you look across the whole poll — I don’t want to make too much of small differences — what I would say is that the degree of worry is quite similar among younger people and older people. And the reason that’s so surprising is that we know scientifically the risk is not similar. It’s extremely different.
It’s much higher for older people. It’s so much higher that 3/4 of all deaths in the U.S. have been among people age 65 and older.
Covid is overwhelmingly mild for younger people. And yet, older people and younger people essentially look at the risks and give extremely similar answers, even though the reality is that the risks are very different.
Well, given all that, what would drive young people to be as anxious as older people about Covid, because the data shows that’s just not in line with the scientific risk. How do you start to explain that?
I start to explain it by saying political ideology has to be a big part of this. And we see that repeatedly in the poll. So across most demographic groups, Covid attitudes really aren’t that different. Men and women don’t have very different Covid attitudes. Different racial groups don’t have very different Covid attitudes. The rich, the middle class, and the poor don’t have very different Covid attitudes. Who does have very different Covid attitudes? Democrats and Republicans.
Radically different Covid attitudes. And I think the most fascinating way to see this is to look at the poll by both partisanship and by age. It’s really remarkable. So if you look across either Republicans or Democrats, there’s almost no difference in how people assess their own personal risk by age. So old Republicans are roughly as worried as young Republicans. Old Democrats are roughly as worried as young Democrats. And as we’ve talked about, that’s just not scientifically rational.
But when you separate out Democrats and Republicans, the gap is enormous. It is so big that older Republicans are significantly less worried about getting sick than younger Democrats. Only 47% of Republicans who are 65 and older say they are worried about getting sick from Covid. 70% of Democrats between the ages of 18 and 34 are worried about it. So when you look at all this, what you end up seeing is that people’s attitudes toward risk doesn’t seem to be driven by rational thought or scientific evidence, so much as it seems to be driven by political belief.
David, it’s interesting you used the word rational. It sounds like you’re saying that there’s a politically-infused irrationality to these divergent views of the old and the young when it comes to the risk of Covid.
Yes, I am. And I think there is. I think you see it with Republicans who are refusing to get vaccinated. And I think you see it with Democrats who are really struggling to imagine a future in which Covid isn’t a dominant part of our life.
I always tell people don’t put too much stock into any one poll. But it’s not just our poll that’s finding this. It’s poll after poll. As the folks at Gallup said, “Republicans are consistently underestimating Covid risks and Democrats are consistently overestimating Covid risks.”
We’ll be right back.
So David, tell us about the second big surprising finding from this poll of Americans about the pandemic. You said it was around the question of vaccine status. What did the poll find?
I found this remarkable. The more protected you are from Covid, the more worried you are about your own personal risk —
— across groups. So what that means is that the people who express the greatest worry about how at risk they are to Covid illness are the boosted. The vaccinated but not boosted are not as concerned about how exposed they are to risk as the boosted are. And the least worried are the unvaccinated.
Now, on some level, I get this, right? If you were worried, you would go get vaccinated. But the fact that having been vaccinated or having not been vaccinated doesn’t change people’s views is really remarkable. So if you told me that the people who were more worried about this would go get vaccinated, I would say, well, of course, that’s what they’re going to do, that just only makes sense.
But the idea that unvaccinated people continue in many cases not to express much concern, and that boosted people continue to express high levels of concern in many cases — not everyone, of course, but in many cases — that’s really remarkable. I think it’s important to focus for a second on just how small the risk is for most boosted people in the case of Omicron.
We’re still waiting for the data to confirm this, but there’s a lot of indication that if you are boosted, Omicron appears to present less risk than the flu. So if you think about yourself, if you’re a boosted person — I’m a boosted person — and you think about what you are going to do today and the risk you’re going to expose yourself, by my calculation, looking at data on how many people go to E.R.s and die, I almost certainly expose myself to more risk by setting foot in a vehicle today — vehicle crashes kill about 40,000 Americans every year — than Covid presents to me.
But that’s not how boosted people are thinking about it. They’re not thinking, ooh, this morning when I get up, there’s a small risk that I might choke. There’s a small risk that I might be in a car accident. They’re focusing overwhelmingly on this tiny Covid risk. And the flip side of that is unvaccinated people, who really are at mortal risk from Covid —
— are often just dismissive of it.
So this is another pretty staggering gap between what the scientific data tells us and the level of anxieties you’re finding from people in this poll.
That’s right. And again, we don’t fully understand what is driving these gaps. But it’s clear that political belief is driving a significant portion of it. And this isn’t just what people are saying when they’re contacted by a poll. Look at the statistics on vaccination. According to the most recent numbers we have, fewer than 10% of Democratic adults are unvaccinated. The most recent numbers for Republicans — it’s about 40% of Republican adults are not vaccinated.
And so there’s this enormous gap, not just in attitudes, but in behavior, to how people are responding to this pandemic. Partisanship has become a dominant way that we think about Covid, the same way partisanship is dominant in our thinking on abortion and guns and climate change, and so many other issues.
Right. What’s interesting about what you’re saying, David, is that it’s not only showing that partisanship is dictating whether people get vaccinated, which I think we did know. It’s also showing that even those who do get vaccinated, who do believe the science that shows vaccines are protective, are still having a pretty high level of fear that suggests they actually don’t really feel protected. And that’s counterintuitive.
That’s right. So if you believe the science, you should go get the vaccine, because all the science says the vaccines are very safe and very effective at preventing serious Covid illness. But let’s focus on that second beat just for a second. The science says vaccines are very effective at preventing serious Covid illness. So if you believe the science, it doesn’t argue only for getting vaccinated. It also argues for living your life in a way that reflects that you’ve been vaccinated.
Now, I know that many boosted people will say, look, I’m not worried about myself. I’m worried about infecting others. And that shows an admirable concern for others. The thing to remember is that those other people have also had the opportunity to get vaccinated. And the data suggests that for vaccinated people, Omicron looks a lot like other common respiratory illnesses.
As we’ve said, it’s usually mild, but it can be rough on elderly or immunocompromised people. So the question becomes, if Covid is starting to look like a regular respiratory virus, is it rational for us to treat it like something completely different and to disrupt our lives in all these big and consequential ways?
And I think this is very important to emphasize. The steps we have taken to minimize the spread of Covid had big benefits. They saved a huge number of lives. But they also have had enormous costs. And by almost any measure, American society just isn’t functioning very well right now. Violent crime has soared and it started soaring shortly after the pandemic began.
There was just this interesting study out that showed Americans’ blood pressure had gone up. Many people have just been working from their homes. Mental health problems have gone up. Drug overdoses have soared. And so the idea that we’ve all isolated ourselves and we’ve sublimated these normal human interactions, that has had huge costs. And so I think the thing we need to grapple with is at what point do the costs of pandemic precautions outweigh the benefits?
I think this very naturally leads us to the final category of views that you mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, which is around schools. So what did the poll show about that? It’s another area where you said the results were surprising.
Let’s start with an area of partisan agreement. Because like a lot of people, I sometimes get exhausted by all of our partisan divides. So one place where we really see partisan agreement are on these questions of are the changes to schools damaging kids? And you see a clear majority of Democrats and a clear majority of Republicans and a clear majority of independents say yes.
The difference is what Democrats and Republicans think we should do about schools. And so here you see a clear majority of Democrats being in favor of taking significant extra precautions in order to reduce the spread of Omicron. So we ask people, do you support or oppose transitioning students from in-school to online because of Omicron? And 65% of Democratic voters say yes. 61% of Republican voters say no.
What I think is particularly notable here is the internal contradictions for Democrats. They are simultaneously saying, look, we’re really worried about remote school.
We’re worried about the educational loss for our kids. We’re worried about the costs in terms of socialization. We’re worried about the emotional and psychological cost for them. And there’s huge evidence that they’re right to be worried about all that. Children appear to be in crisis right now by any number of measures. And yet, Democrats also say they are in favor of moving schools online in order to reduce the spread of Omicron.
So the question is, are those costs justified given that Omicron tends to be mild not only for vaccinated adults but also for unvaccinated children? The rates of long Covid seem to be low also for kids based on the evidence that we have.
Whereas Republicans are being pretty consistent. They’re saying both, we think closing schools hurts our kids and we want schools to remain open as a result. And I think there really is a question of what is the scientific evidence that justifies the idea of shutting schools, given how bad the effects are for kids, in a country where vaccines are universally available and the effects are mild in children. And I’ve yet to hear a science-based answer to that question.
Mhm. And so how do you explain that?
Look, this pandemic has been really difficult for people. It’s caused a horrific amount of death and it’s dominated daily life for two years. And we also live in a country where people’s political identities are often really core to who they are. And so those two things have combined — the terribleness of the pandemic and the strength of people’s political identities.
And we’ve seen Republicans adopt this attitude, in which downplaying Covid to the point of saying, falsely, that vaccines don’t matter. That’s become central to who they are. In some cases, it’s cost Republicans their lives. On the flip side, we’ve seen Democrats who’ve reacted to that, and who’ve reacted to really a lot of misinformation out there from President Trump, from conservative media.
And they’ve said, hey, we’re going to go in the opposite direction. We are going to take this virus absolutely as seriously as we can. We view our masks not only as a form of protection, but as a statement that we’re progressives and that we believe in science. And I think on both sides, it’s ended up going beyond where the science should allow it to go.
Right. So if you’re inclined to see this moment — Omicron starting to peak, infections going down — as a pivot point, it feels like what this poll has taught us is that the strength of Americans’ political identifications, and how much that’s bound up in the way they view the pandemic, is a pretty big obstacle to everyone pivoting at the same time or in any way or shape in the same direction. So what’s going to be necessary for the country to actually pivot on the pandemic?
I think it’s worth remembering that Americans do still agree on many things. And one of the things that they agree on is the fact that eventually we will get beyond Covid. We asked people that question — do you think we’ll get to a point in which we live with Covid without it disrupting daily life? And a majority of both Republicans and Democrats said, yes, they do expect that to happen. And so I guess that then raises the question of, well, how is that going to happen and when is it going to happen? And —
— I think the how is there are two points to consider here. Nothing would be more helpful for us moving on from Covid than increasing the number of Americans who are vaccinated. These vaccines are amazing. And they really do transform this terrible virus into something that’s overwhelmingly manageable.
So if something could happen to change that and get more of the millions and millions of Republicans who remain unvaccinated to get vaccinated, that would lead to less stress on our hospitals. And our hospitals are really stressed now, because the Omicron wave is not yet over. It would mean our nurses and our doctors wouldn’t have to work so hard all the time. It would mean people who need medical treatment for other reasons could more often get it. And it would reduce the number of Americans who are dying each day from this virus.
I think the second thing is — and this is on the Democratic side — at what point, do we manage to say, OK, I can accept a very small risk that is not a zero risk? And I think we see a lot of Democrats struggling with that question. I think that’s why so many Democrats are in favor of shutting schools relatively quickly. I think that’s why we see so many Democrats resistant to the idea of offices reopening. Because they see these risks, which are not zero, but have gotten very, very small, and they have said, oh, that’s still too large for me.
And they aren’t ready yet to weigh the costs of our precautions with the costs of the virus. They aren’t really putting on a scale, OK, the damage that these disruptions are doing to children, the damage they’re doing to vulnerable communities, the damage they’re doing to our mental health with the costs of Covid in the current moment.
Hmm. What you’re really saying, it seems, David, is that even if Americans say they want to learn to live with Covid — that they want to make a pivot — it’s going to be really hard, because making that pivot is going to require many Americans to change how they identify themselves vis-a-vis the virus, to change something quite essential about how they think about the pandemic and themselves.
Yes, we’re never going to get to a morning where Covid is dead. There is always going to be a potential future variant. There is always going to be some small risk of something bad happening from Covid. There’s always going to be uncertainty about long-term symptoms for a small percentage of people who get it. These are real questions. They’re serious questions. They need scientific attention.
But that’s not the same as saying, OK, we’re going to remain in some version of the mode that we’ve been in for the last two years over the course of the rest of our lives. And so the question is, how do we balance the very real risks and costs of Covid with the very real risks and costs of disrupting life in order to respond to Covid?
David, thank you very much.
Thank you, Michael.
On Tuesday, The Times reported that a handful of Democratic governors in states like Pennsylvania and Colorado are beginning to adopt a new approach to the virus that moves them closer to their Republican counterparts by avoiding measures like school shutdowns and mask mandates. The change, the Democratic officials told The Times, reflects their belief that more and more Americans are now ready to learn to live with the virus.
We’ll be right back.
Here’s what else you need to know today. On Tuesday, the Biden administration took its latest step to weaken Russia’s hand in the growing standoff over Ukraine by acting to strengthen the position of U.S. allies in Europe. For weeks, European countries have worried that punishing Russia for possibly invading Ukraine could prompt Russia to punish Europe by cutting off crucial supplies of oil and gas in the dead of winter.
To alleviate those fears, the White House said it was working with oil and gas producers from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia to ensure that European countries would have enough fuel even if Russia carried out that threat. Meanwhile, Russia engaged in its own act of provocation on Tuesday, conducting a wave of military exercises involving troops, tanks and ballistic missiles, many of them near its borders with Ukraine, in a deliberate show of its military might.
Today’s episode was produced by Jessica Cheung, Mooj Zadie and Luke Vander Ploeg. It was edited by Anita Badejo, John Ketchum, Larissa Anderson and Paige Cowett; contains original music by Marion Lozano; and was engineered by Corey Schreppel. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.
That’s it for Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.