The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As coronavirus fears spike, Biden’s ratings sag and workers split on vaccine mandates, Post-ABC poll finds

Students in Gabby Mondelli’s fourth-grade class listen to their teacher read a story at Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., on Aug. 19. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/For The Washington Post)

The delta variant’s two-month surge has generated a sharp rise in public fears about contracting the coronavirus, undermined confidence in President Biden’s leadership and renewed divisions over vaccine and mask mandates, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Nearly half of Americans, 47 percent, rate their risk of getting sick from the coronavirus as moderate or high, up 18 percentage points from late June. This follows a more than tenfold increase in daily infections. Concerns over catching the virus among partially or fully vaccinated adults have risen from 32 percent to 52 percent, while concern among unvaccinated adults has grown from 22 percent to 35 percent over the same period.

Those shifts parallel a rebound in vaccinations, with the share of adults with at least one coronavirus shot rising from 67 percent in early July to 75 percent as of Saturday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The poll finds younger Republicans and Republican-leaning independents have become more willing to get vaccinated since this spring, a significant shift for one of the country’s most vaccine-hesitant groups.

Read Post-ABC poll results and how the survey was conducted

The increasing number of employer mandates may boost vaccination further, but the poll also shows potential for blowback. Among unvaccinated workers who are not self-employed, about 7 in 10 say they would likely quit if their employer required them to be vaccinated and did not grant a medical or religious exemption.

President Biden’s approval rating for handling the pandemic has dropped to 52 percent from 62 percent in late June, days before he said the nation was “closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus.” At the time and as the variant has spread, he has repeatedly implored Americans to get vaccinated and wear masks.

D.C. public schools are back in person with some exceptions, but parents and guardians are debating whether it’s safe as the pandemic continues. (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

Biden’s overall approval rating fell from 50 percent to 44 percent from June, also dragged down by 2-to-1 disapproval for his handling of Afghanistan following a chaotic withdrawal. Biden’s ratings for handling the economy also have declined, from 52 percent positive in April to 45 percent in the latest survey.

Employee vaccine mandates are expected to be a major flash point in the months ahead, with thousands of private employers as well as the federal government and U.S. military newly imposing vaccination requirements on workers. This trend accelerated after the Food and Drug Administration recently gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, which had been operating under an emergency use authorization.

The Post-ABC poll finds 52 percent of Americans support businesses requiring employees who come into work to be vaccinated, with support dipping to 47 percent among workers who are not self-employed. Roughly 8 in 10 Democrats support vaccine mandates for workers, while more than 6 in 10 Republicans are opposed. Independents are divided nearly down the middle.

Currently, just under 2 in 10 American workers say their employer requires people who come into work be vaccinated (18 percent). Among workers whose employer lacks a mandate, about 3 in 10 are unvaccinated. Asked what they would likely do if their employer imposed a mandate, 16 percent of that group say they would get vaccinated while 35 percent would ask for a medical or religious exemption and 42 percent would quit. If no exemption was given, 72 percent of unvaccinated workers say they would quit their job rather than get vaccinated.

Vaccine and mask requirements in schools have also generated fierce divisions as the academic year begins, and the Post-ABC poll finds public support depending on circumstances as well as by partisan viewpoint. Two-thirds of Americans overall, as well as public school parents, support school districts requiring teachers, staff and students to wear masks.

Arguments that mask mandates violate an individual’s constitutional right to liberty might not cut it with the Supreme Court. Here's why. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

The CDC has recommended this practice, but nine Republican-led states have tried to ban such requirements. The poll finds that more than 9 in 10 Democrats and more than 6 in 10 independents support school mask requirements, while nearly 6 in 10 Republicans oppose them.

A 59 percent majority support school districts requiring teachers and staff to be vaccinated, and 54 percent support districts requiring students to be vaccinated if a vaccine is approved for their age. Hardly any school districts mandate coronavirus vaccines for students at this time, though Virginia’s Fairfax County recently announced a vaccine requirement for high school students playing winter and spring sports.

On these questions about mask and vaccine requirements, non-Whites are significantly more likely to support them than Whites. Women are also significantly more supportive of vaccine and mask requirements, with 77 percent backing requirements to wear masks at indoor public places, compared with 56 percent of men.

The Post-ABC poll suggests vaccine hesitancy has declined substantially from early in the year, and that there is still some room for the nation’s vaccination rate to grow above the current level of three-quarters of adults. The survey finds that 6 percent of adults are unvaccinated but say they definitely or probably will get vaccinated. And while 17 percent of adults say they probably or definitely will not get vaccinated, that group has declined from 32 percent in January and 24 percent in April.

The current Post-ABC poll was weighted by demographics and also by the latest CDC estimate for the share of adults who have received at least one coronavirus shot. Previous surveys did not include this adjustment, although the poll’s findings of increasing concern about contracting the virus and reduced vaccine hesitancy are consistent regardless of whether the adjustment is applied.

Perceptions of vaccine safety and effectiveness are critical predictors of behavior, and unvaccinated Americans hold widespread doubts about the coronavirus vaccines on both fronts.

The FDA and the CDC have said the vaccines are safe, and the percentage of unvaccinated people hospitalized with covid-19 is far higher than the percentage of those who are vaccinated. Still, more than 7 in 10 unvaccinated adults say they are not confident the vaccines are safe and a similar majority lack confidence that they are effective in preventing serious illness and death from the coronavirus.

And while concerns about becoming infected have risen since June, 6 in 10 unvaccinated Americans say they are at “low risk” or “no risk” of getting sick from the coronavirus, a view that has stymied public health officials’ efforts to convince people of the benefits of getting vaccinated.

Roughly 6 in 10 unvaccinated adults say the information they’ve heard and read about the coronavirus vaccines has not swayed them for or against it, but notably just 4 percent say they’ve heard information that moves them toward vaccination, while 33 percent say they heard things that moved them against getting vaccinated. Similarly, 16 percent of unvaccinated people say the FDA’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine makes them more likely to get a shot, while 82 percent say it makes no difference.

But personal connections also matter, with 58 percent of vaccinated people saying people who care about them encouraged them to receive it, compared with 16 percent of unvaccinated people saying they had been prodded to take the vaccine. Most unvaccinated Americans say people that care about them “stayed out of it.”

In one notable shift, younger Republicans and Republican-leaning independents have become significantly more willing to get vaccinated since this spring. In April, a 55 percent majority of Republican-leaning adults under 40 said they would probably or definitely not get vaccinated. With the delta variant now circulating widely, the latest poll finds that hesitancy falling to 36 percent among young Republicans, with 48 percent of those under 40 saying they have gotten at least one shot and another 11 percent saying they are likely to do so.

Among Republicans and Republican leaners overall, hesitancy has declined from 40 percent in April to 29 percent in early September, with 61 percent at least partially vaccinated. By comparison, 90 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say they have received at least one vaccination.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone Aug. 29-Sept. 1 among a random national sample of 1,006 adults, with 75 percent reached on cellphone and 25 percent on landline. Overall results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The error margin is 5.5 points for results among the sample of 474 workers who are not self-employed and 7.5 points among the sample of 229 public school parents.