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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Most Americans say the coronavirus pandemic is not controlled, Post-ABC poll finds


As President Trump is leaving office, just over 1 in 10 Americans say the coronavirus pandemic in the United States is mostly under control, despite the departing president’s assertions that record case levels are exaggerations, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The nationwide survey shows that large majorities of people of all political affiliations say they think the deadly virus, which arrived in the country a year ago, is only somewhat under control or not at all controlled.

About 1 in 5 Republicans say they think the pandemic is at least mostly under control, with fewer than 1 in 20 regarding it as completely controlled, the survey finds. Democrats are more than twice as likely as those identifying with the GOP to say they perceive the virus as not at all under control.

Overall, the survey also shows interest among a majority of Americans in getting a coronavirus inoculation now that the government is allowing two manufacturers’ vaccines for emergency use. Forty percent say they definitely will get a shot once it becomes available to them and another 23 percent say they probably will. Still, partisan differences exist on vaccine attitudes, too, with about half of Democrats saying they definitely will get vaccinated, compared with about one-quarter of Republicans.

Taken together, the findings from the poll, conducted from 10 days to a week before Trump leaves the White House on Wednesday after one term, suggests that most Americans are not giving much credence to his persistent attempts to play down the pandemic. Nearly 6 in 10 say they disapprove of the way Trump handled the outbreak — attitudes that have hardly changed since July.

The data also reflects the partisan and ideological cleavages that President-elect Joe Biden will be trying to conquer as he moves at midday Wednesday from a president-in-waiting, exhorting Americans to take safety measures to help slow the virus’s spread, to actually governing the country.

Read full Post-ABC poll results

Since he clinched the election in November, Biden has made clear the coronavirus and the profound economic damage it has wrought will be his central priorities until the pandemic eases its grip on life in the United States. He frequently urges people to wear masks and keep safe distances, has set a vaccination goal of 100 million shots during his first 100 days in office, and has asked Congress to approve an additional relief package of $1.9 trillion. About $20 billion of that amount would be devoted to a more assertive federal role in the mass vaccination campaign.

The high percentage of people regarding the pandemic as not very controlled reflects how directly the public health crisis has affected people’s lives, according to Robert J. Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard University who studies public attitudes toward health care.

“It has a certain Katrina quality,” he said, comparing the pandemic to the 2005 hurricane that devastated New Orleans. “People are basically saying, there is a national disaster, and the water is floating by my house.”

Blendon predicted the public’s eagerness to resume normal life will lend the incoming president support in trying ambitious federal moves to try to stem the virus’s spread. Yet it also poses considerable political risk for Biden if, by a year from now, Americans cannot go to work, send their children to school, or go to weddings and religious services, Blendon said.

“How would you feel about [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower if D-Day hadn’t worked?” Blendon said, referring to the bold invasion of northern France that the future president commanded during War War II.

Americans of different political affiliations, the survey finds, see the world differently in terms of their perception of the risk that they or a member of their immediate family might contract the coronavirus. Nearly 8 in 10 Democrats say they are very or somewhat worried about that, compared with nearly 4 in 10 Republicans and slightly more than 6 in 10 independents.

Repeatedly in the fall, including after he was hospitalized for three days in early October with covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, Trump characterized the pandemic as “rounding the corner.” As recently as this month, he lashed out at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying in a tweet that the federal public health agency had “far exaggerated” U.S. cases and deaths.

As of Tuesday, the virus had infected more than 24 million people in the United States and marked another milestone, with more than 400,000 deaths, according to The Washington Post’s tracking. That threshold was reached less than five weeks after reaching 300,000 deaths. In a sign of the pandemic’s increasing velocity, it took 12 weeks for the death toll to rise from 200,000 to 300,000.

Such a rampant spread and its costs in illness, hospitalizations and lost lives comes as concerns grow over a variant of the coronavirus first identified in the United Kingdom. Scientists in Britain have said they believe it is easier to transmit, and it is forecast by the CDC to become the dominant strain in the country within about two months.

Despite the pandemic’s acceleration, Americans hold sharply different views on how much it remains a danger, the poll shows.

“It’s out of control,” said Carolyn James, 73, of San Antonio, who is a Realtor in normal times but is now the caregiver for her 98-year-old mother, Geraldine James Smedler. James, a Democrat who voted for Biden, is staying nearly full-time in her mother’s independent-living unit at the Towers on Park Lane. Every time James goes out to get groceries or to check the mail at her own house 15 miles away, she said, her mother’s “last word is be careful, be careful.”

James misses being part of the Baseline Bums for the San Antonio Spurs, older cheerleaders for the team who also perform community service. “That was one of the few things that was an emotional outlet and a friendship outlet,” James said. They were supposed to resume this month, she said, “but they haven’t brought the fans back yet, and that hurts.”

Two weeks ago, two members of the Towers’s kitchen staff and a resident’s caregiver tested positive, so all of the hundreds of people in the high-rise had to be tested. The results are not all in.

Last week, her mother got a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine when CVS Pharmacy workers arrived to vaccinate all the residents. Smedler is well-known in San Antonio, where she was a civil rights activist and a community leader. Many think of her as a second mother and fear for her safety in the pandemic.

A friend of Smedler and James’s, who is a faculty member at a local nursing school, called James on Friday and said to come over right away to get a shot of her own because there was a lull in vaccinating the students.

After a first vaccine dose, and waiting for a second, James is freighted by “the psychological pressure of handling all of this.”

“If anything happens to me,” James said of her mother, “who is going to take care of her?”

In Springfield, Mo., Dwin Davis has a starkly different view. At 75, he works for his son’s small landscaping business, as well as working as a tractor operator. “Our work is all outdoors,” said Davis, a Republican who voted for Trump. It “doesn’t put us in contact with groups of people.”

He also is a preacher at a small Church of Christ congregation — 12 to 15 people most Sundays in a church built in the 1800s with room for 300. Davis and his 69-year-old wife are among the youngest. They eat in restaurants, wearing masks, and hosted 18 family members spread among rooms for Thanksgiving.

Spacing themselves out in the wooden church, he said, “we just haven’t had any problem with it at all.” A 92-year-old woman in the congregation and a woman who works at a hospital “got it and got over it. They knew not to come to the worship.”

Even when Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R) ordered churches not to meet in person, Davis and his congregation kept gathering for Sunday Bible study and worship service.

“Which is more important, saving the body or saving the soul?” James said, adding that government officials restricting churches “ought to be sued and kicked out of office and locked up for a while because they are there to serve the people.”

He said he hasn’t decided whether he will get the coronavirus vaccine but that his wife is adamant she will not. They oppose abortion, he said, and she found somewhere on the Internet that the vaccines are “made from parts of dead babies.” The two vaccines in use so far were actually developed through a new technology that uses messenger RNA.

The Post-ABC poll’s findings about individuals’ willingness to be vaccinated are consistent with other surveys that found Americans’ receptivity to getting a vaccine dipped in September but rebounded later in the fall. There is relatively little polling evidence since vaccines have been in use since December. But, in an Axios-Ipsos poll released this month, 60 percent said they were very or somewhat likely to get a shot of one of the available vaccines, 12 percentage points higher than a month earlier.

The Post-ABC poll finds that about 6 in 10 Americans think it is more important to try to control the virus, even at the expense of the economy — a similar proportion to attitudes last spring and summer. A stark partisan divide has persisted on this, with nearly 9 in 10 Democrats putting the priority on efforts to control the virus, while more than 6 in 10 Republicans say trying to restart the economy is more important.

The Washington Post-ABC News poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 10 through Jan. 13 among a random national sample of 1,002 adults, with 75 percent reached on cellphones and 25 percent on landlines. Results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for the full sample.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.