Half a year in, here’s what Americans say about COVID-19

August 21, 2020, 7:30 PM UTC

Worry about coronavirus has ebbed and flowed with surges and declines in the pandemic. Views about Trump’s handling of the virus, on the other hand, have been in steady decline.

YouGov has tracked attitudes on the coronavirus since March in surveys conducted for Yahoo News, and the trended data tell two slightly different stories.

One tale begins with the number of Americans who say they are very or somewhat worried about COVID–19. The Yahoo News!/YouGov survey began tracking this question in March, and found that 57 percent of Americans were worried. That number peaked at 74 percent on a survey conducted April 6–7, coinciding almost exactly with an initial high point of new cases.

As the rate of new cases began to decline, so did coronavirus worries, gradually falling to a low of 65 percent in late May. However, as reports emerged of a surge in new cases in late June in the South and Southwest, worries trended up again, plateauing at roughly 73 percent on three surveys conducted in July. Finally, as new cases started to decline again in August, worries ticked back down to 69 percent. 

A similar pattern occurred on a more specific question Yahoo added in April about reopening the economy. The number of Americans who are more concerned about lifting restrictions too quickly rather than too slowly (65% on the most recent survey) closely parallels the number more generally worried about the virus. It too has been higher when new cases have surged, lower when they have declined.

Trends hold up on questions about getting personally infected and on how others are dealing with COVID–19 risks – but with one critical difference: These concerns peaked in early July, unlike more general worries, which peaked in early April.

Shares of Americans who currently think they are likely to get infected (44%) and who think others are underestimating the risks (45%) are slightly lower now than in July, but both concerns are greater now than they had been from March through mid-June.

All four of these questions ask about variations on the theme of concern or worry, and while these worries have been elevated throughout the pandemic, they have shown parallel variation on the margins corresponding to rising or falling case counts in the news.

The story is different when it comes to the rating Americans give President Trump for his handling of COVID–19. Since April, his approval rating has declined modestly but steadily (from a high of 44% to 36% on the most recent survey), while the disapproval percentage has gradually increased by 11 percentage points over the same period (from 48% to 59%).

Not surprisingly, these ratings differ greatly by party, with the biggest decline in Trump’s coronavirus approval dropping fifteen percentage points (from 41% to 26%) since April among independents who do not lean toward either major party.
The erosion is smaller among partisans on both sides. Roughly four out of five Republicans and independents who lean Republican have expressed approval of Trump’s performance on COVID–19 throughout the pandemic, though his approval percentage with Republicans has declined roughly four percentage points since April. Still, the vast majority of Republicans remain supportive of the President.

A small sliver of Democrats – roughly 15 percent – had rallied to Trump’s handling of COVID-19 in March, but that number had faded to 10 percent in the most recent survey.

The Yahoo surveys have tracked one more question with a trend that looks more like Trump’s falling approval rate than that of the overall worries: Since April, Americans have grown increasingly pessimistic about the duration of the pandemic. From March to May, as overall worries about the pandemic were declining, the proportion of Americans who expect COVID–19 to continue to be a serious problem for their community for more than three months increased by twenty percentage points (from 38% to 58%). That expectation continued to grow, with two-thirds (67%) now convinced that serious problems will continue for at least three more months.
All of these measurements are snapshots of public opinion. A high profile breakthrough in treatment or testing, or an extended period of good news about declining spread of the virus, could reverse the trends. For now, however, though coronavirus worries may vary at the margins along with the latest headlines, the deep sense of pessimism about how long we still have to live with the virus is contributing to President Trump’s low ratings for handling the crisis.

Methodology: The Yahoo! News surveys were conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative samples US adult residents interviewed online between March 10-11 (n=1,636), March 25-26 (n=1,579), April 6-7 (n=1,566), April 17-19 (n=1,597), May 4-5 (n=1,573), May 20-21 (n=1,640), May 29-30 (n=1,060), June 9-10 (n=1,570), June 24-25 (n=1,507), June 29-July 1 (n=1,525), July 11-14 (n=1,504), July 28-30 (n=1,506) and August 14-15, 2020 (n=1,529). These samples were weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status, and news interest.

Image: Getty