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US Concern about COVID-19 Decreasing, but Partisan Divides Persist

Running Numbers by Emily Sullivan
Reuters
a person wears a mask on their wrist

Americans are less worried about COVID-19 than they have been at any point since the initial shutdown in early 2020, Council polling finds.

With global case rates declining and vaccines and booster shots becoming more widely available, President Joe Biden recently declared that the COVID-19 pandemic is over. While COVID-19 is unlikely to be fully eradicated any time in the near future, many experts including World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recognize that most countries are “moving beyond the emergency phase of the pandemic response.” The results of the 2022 Chicago Council Survey indicate the US public is feeling similarly optimistic. Americans are now less concerned about COVID-19 than they have been at any point since the initial shutdown in early 2020. Only about a third of Americans now classify the pandemic as a critical threat to US interests (32%), down from two-thirds at this time last year (65%). Other global threats, including a potential disruption in energy supply (62%) and Russia’s territorial ambitions (60%), have surpassed the pandemic in the minds of Americans. 

COVID-19 Remains a Politically Divisive Issue  

After a brief period of national unity in the very early days of the pandemic, COVID-19 became, and has remained, a politically divisive issue in the United States both at the public and policymaking levels. This remains true today, with Democrats significantly more likely to name COVID-19 as a critical threat than Republicans or Independents. But the sense of threat is declining sharply among all partisan groups. Threat perception among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents are all down over 30 points from August 2021. 

"a line chart showing partisan views of COVID-19 as a critical threat"

Vaccines: How Important are They? And for Whom? 

Vaccines have been one of, if not the singular, most important tools in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic globally. But even these remain divisive among Americans. The Pew Research Center’s Spring 2022 Global Attitudes Survey found that Americans were more ideologically divided about the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine than the publics of any of the other countries surveyed. Seven in 10 Americans on the ideological left (68%), mostly Democrats, believe that getting the vaccine is very important to be a good member of society. This is compared to two in 10 on the ideological right (22%). The 46-point gap separating the American left and right on this issue is nearly double what it is in the next most divided country, South Korea, where supporters of the left and right are separated by 26 points. 

American opinion on the US role in the global vaccine distribution effort is similarly divided. A narrow majority of Democrats think the United States should play a leading role in sending COVID-19 vaccines to other countries in need (51%), with 45 percent preferring a supporting role (likely reflecting a belief that other countries should also contribute). Among Republicans and Independents, playing a supporting role is the preferred option (58% Republican, 50% Independent), with Republicans more likely to say that the United States should play no role (27%) than a leading one (15%). 

Within each party, those who believe COVID-19 is a critical threat are more likely to support a leading role in the global vaccination effort than those who think COVID poses little or no threat. But even among Republicans and Independents who believe the pandemic is a critical threat, support for a leading role in the global vaccination effort falls short of majority level. 

Divided, but Self-Aware 

Americans are under no illusion of partisan unity when it comes to COVID-19. Pew also found that Americans were more likely than the publics in any of the other countries surveyed to say that their country is “failing to handle the coronavirus outbreak in ways that show the weaknesses of the political system” (66%). In most countries, this view was only held by those who did not support the governing party/parties, but in the United States, few supporters (42%) or opponents (19%) of the government believed that the response to COVID-19 was highlighting the strengths of the political system. 

While in the aggregate Americans agree that COVID-19 does not pose the threat to our country that it once did, stark partisan divisions continue to characterize how people are thinking about the pandemic and the appropriate national response to it. At the policymaking level, the combination of President Biden’s recent remarks, the drop in concern among the public, and the looming midterm elections could spell trouble for congressional Democrats’ efforts to pass legislation containing more funding for COVID-19 response measures. 

About the Author
Research Assistant, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Emily Sullivan joined the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2021 as a research assistant on the Public Opinion team.