Americans’ perception of risk from the coronavirus is the lowest it has been since October, a new poll has found.
When asked about risk to their health if we returned to normal, pre-pandemic behavior right now — while the pandemic is ongoing — 25% of respondents thought it was a small risk and 9% considered it not risky, according to an Axios-Ipsos poll published Tuesday.
Sixty-six percent reported they thought returning to pre-pandemic life now was a moderate risk or large risk. The poll was conducted February 5 to 8 and based on a nationally representative sample of 1,030 people age 18 and older.
The groups least likely to see Covid-19 as a risk were people ages 18 to 29 (58%) and Republicans (49%), the poll showed. Meanwhile, 76% of those who have been vaccinated still saw coronavirus as a high risk.
“Certain groups are finding that they are invincible and think that they are not going to get as ill as others,” said CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.
“Also, we have seen Covid-19 become so politicized, and public health measures have become put into categories of partisan ideology rather than understood as the scientific reasons why they must exist.”
Many Americans are unsure about what activities are safe, the poll also suggested: 28% of respondents say they are attending gatherings with family or friends; 22% say they will wait for their circle to be vaccinated; 24% reported they will wait for officials to say it’s safe; and 24% don’t know. Gathering virtually or only with people you live with is safest, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said.
Only 10% of Democrats and 15% of people over 65 have already been going to in-person gatherings, in comparison to 42% of Republicans. People over 65 (29%) and those with a college education are more likely to wait for the vaccine (34%).
The poll findings come at a time when there is less trust in the media and sources of information about the pandemic. Trust in cable news has dropped since April, from 50% to 38%. Online news was trusted by 36% of respondents and network news by 47%.
The poll found that 68% of Americans trust the CDC to provide accurate information about Covid-19, while 51% of Republicans do. Fifty-three percent of Americans continue to trust what President Joe Biden says.
Why some misinterpret pandemic risks
The factors contributing to misperception of risks during the pandemic could include conflicting guidance, misguided trust and confidence, pandemic fatigue and distrust in sources of information.
What the poll “illustrates to me is that people don’t understand where we are in the pandemic, for good reason,” Wen said.
“On the one hand, we have decreased numbers of hospitalization and new infections. But on the other hand, this is still at a very high level of infection. And we have these more contagious variants on the way. Restrictions are being lifted in many parts of the country,” Wen said. “I could see why people are thinking that the worst of it may be over, and that some of the activities that are actually not safe, people are resuming.”
Additionally, some people may take the introduction of vaccines to mean that we can return to normalcy much sooner than possible. Regarding the respondents who have already been gathering with family and friends, some people may be safe when going to stores, but tempted to visit loved ones if they already trust them and consider them to be less risky than strangers — but the coronavirus doesn’t discriminate in who it infects.
“People don’t understand that the risk is actually, for many people, greatest with those who they love rather than with strangers” since we spend more time with loved ones,” Wen said. “There’s a level of magical thinking when it comes to coronavirus. Because of asymptomatic transmission, we don’t know who has the virus and who does not.”
After plateaus after previous case surges, Wen added, cases have spiked again when people let down their guard. Watching or reading news sources that deem the pandemic a hoax may develop inaccurate perceptions, she said.
What everyone may deal with, regardless of what they believe, is pandemic fatigue. “We get tired of making decisions during uncertainty and some of us will ignore the warnings to reclaim our routines,” said Jacqueline Gollan, who holds two professorships at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine: one in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and another in obstetrics in gynecology. “We prefer pleasure now and risk pain later.”
How to adequately assess risk
Whichever reason you think the risk for getting infected with coronavirus is low, understanding two concepts can help you reassess risks and act accordingly.
“One is the concept of harm reduction, understanding that everything we do has some risk, but there are things we can do to reduce that risk,” Wen said. “Masking, avoiding indoor gatherings, keeping physical distancing — they are additive. The more of these measures we do, the more we’re protected.”
Secondly, she added, cumulative risk also adds up. “Just because you are engaging in one activity that’s relatively higher risk, doesn’t mean that you should engage in others,” she said.
For example, going back to work shouldn’t mean that you allow yourself to attend birthday parties as well. And if your children are back in school, they don’t need to attend every extracurricular activity. Base your decisions on what is essential, safe and valuable to you — in that order.
Instead of gathering with people you don’t live with, stick to virtual hangouts if possible. If you have been freely enjoying a social life but luckily haven’t been infected with coronavirus, know those times don’t mean that you’ll keep being lucky, Wen said.
Be careful about developing a mindset that you’re reluctant to change. “We pay more attention to information that fits with the mental model, we pay less attention to information that contradicts them, and we twist information to make it fit,” Gollan said. “If we think it is unsafe, we will continue to try to assume that activities are unsafe.”
If you don’t know whether you can trust a source of information, just asking yourself that question is a good place to start, Wen said. Local health departments, the CDC, hospitals such as Cleveland Clinic or Johns Hopkins Hospital, and esteemed news outlets are a few credible sources. “Make sure the health science supports what you read or hear or believe,” Gollan said, as well as what you want to do.
Pandemic fatigue is your brain’s natural response to a new and challenging situation. To restore your motivation to follow safety measures and make them habits, set up virtual cues, such as setting your mask on a table by the door to remind yourself to grab it before you leave the house. Ask others what has helped them to stay safe. Practicing stress-relieving activities can make safety habits seem less daunting.
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Remember that we’re not past the worst of it, Wen said. “If the variants (that are more contagious) are to become dominant here, we could be in for the type of catastrophes that many countries in Europe and South Africa experienced.”
Look for sources of inspiration to keep you practicing safety habits, like visualizing rewards for your choices. Those rewards could include your health, your family’s health or the well-being of society.
Think of everything you want to do when the world is safe again. Because that time is coming, Wen said, and it’s worth the wait to get there.