US poll shows fair amount of common ground on preventive COVID-19 steps



A new poll from researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the de Beaumont Foundation shows that, despite news coverage that painted Americans as deeply divided on COVID-19 mitigation strategies, including mask wearing, there was significant common ground on these strategies in hindsight. 

During the pandemic, "The media made it seem there were huge swaths of population that were unreachable,” said Gillian SteelFisher, PhD, an author of the report and director of global polling in the Harvard Opinion Research Program and principal research scientist at Harvard Chan School in an interview. 

Masking in businesses gets 70% support

SteelFisher said the polling results actually show a much more nuanced and cohesive understanding of public health efforts. Of note, most Americans said four main pandemic strategies were "generally a good idea," including mask requirements in stores and businesses (70%), healthcare worker vaccination requirements (65%), indoor dining closures (63%), and K-12 public school closures (56%). 

Only 20% of those polled said all four main strategies were "generally a bad idea," while 42% said all four were a good idea and 37% said only some were a good idea.

"Overall, a majority of people thought each of the policies were a good idea, that there's merit here," said SteelFisher. 

"Overall, a majority of people thought each of the policies were a good idea, that there's merit here.

The poll was conducted from March 21 to April 2, 2024, and included 1,017 adults.

Differences by political party, race

Black (62%) and Hispanic/Latino (55%) adults were more likely than white adults (32%) to say that all of the four main pandemic policies were a good idea, as were people living in urban areas (55%) compared with those living in suburban (39%) and rural (29%) areas, the poll showed.

There were clear political divides as well: 71% of Democrats and those who lean Democrat say all four policies were a good idea, compared with 44% of Independents and 18% of Republicans and those who lean Republican. 

For people who said they thought masks were a bad idea, 87% believed the policy was flawed because it went on too long, and 85% said it was an issue of individual rights.

Among the 413 poll respondents who thought school closures were a generally bad idea, 97% said closures interfered with learning and 91% said they impaired students' mental health. 

COVID denial rare

SteelFisher said one of the more surprising findings from the poll was that only 3% of people said COVID-19 was not a health threat to anyone early in the pandemic.

"There were so many media stories about COVID deniers," said SteelFisher. "But there were actually very few." Instead, 14% of those polled said COVID was a serious health threat only to people who are very old or frail, 45% said COVID-19 was a serious health threat to more people, including people who are very old or frail as well as those with underlying medical conditions, and 37% said it was a serious health threat to everyone early on.

People have really reasonable thoughts on what works and what didn't.

SteelFisher said the poll results suggest public health officials need to focus on communicating the time frame of proposed policies in future pandemics, and focus on connecting with the population.

"There are more divisions created than are real," said SteelFisher. "These are hard lessons for public health: People have really reasonable thoughts on what works and what didn't."

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