On the left, feeling less anxiety about COVID
By David Leonhardt
Almost six months ago, when The New York Times released its last poll about COVID-19, the deep anxiety among Americans identifying as “very liberal” was one of the main findings.
Some 47% of very liberal adults said that they believed COVID presented a “great risk” to their own personal health and well-being. That was a significantly larger share than among conservatives, moderates or even liberals who stopped short of calling themselves very liberal. Particularly striking was the level of concern among liberals under age 45, even though the virus’s worst effects have been concentrated among older people.
I understand why attitudes about the virus vary so sharply by ideology. Our country is polarized on most high-profile issues today. In the case of COVID, President Donald Trump and some other Republicans exacerbated the divide by making a series of false statements that downplayed the threat or misrepresented the vaccines.
To many liberals, taking COVID seriously — more seriously, at times, than the scientific evidence justified — became an expression of identity and solidarity. As one progressive activist tweeted last year, “The inconvenience of having to wear a mask is more than worth it to have people not think I’m a conservative.”
The Times’ Morning newsletter has released the results of its latest COVID poll (which, like the earlier ones, was conducted by Morning Consult). This time, one of the central findings is how much attitudes have changed since the spring. Americans are less worried about the virus today — and driving that decline is the receding level of anxiety among the very liberal, including many younger adults.
The share of the very liberal who say the virus presents a great risk to their own personal health has fallen to 34%. The 13-point drop since March was larger than the drop among any of the six other ideological self-identifications in the poll.
A growing number of very liberal Americans have decided that it’s time to treat COVID as an unpleasant but manageable part of life, much as many other Americans — as well as people in other countries — decided months ago.
Back to School
What explains the change? In part, it’s probably a reflection of changing reality. Drugs like Paxlovid and Evusheld are now widely available, reducing the risks for vulnerable people.
But psychology seems to play a role too. After all, many aspects of the pandemic have not changed in the past six months. Both then and now, vaccines provided excellent protection against severe illness; the risks of hospitalization for children and most adults under 50 were minuscule; and the vaccines reduced the chances of long COVID.
All of which suggests that the decreasing anxiety among liberals also stems partly from the passage of time. Trump has not been president for more than 18 months. In his place is a Democrat pushing progressive policies on climate change, health care and student loans — and also encouraging Americans not to let COVID fears dominate their lives.
“Americans can remove their masks, return to work, stay in the classroom and move forward safely,” President Joe Biden said this spring.
One example of changing liberal attitudes is related to in-person school. When asked about the best policy for K-12 education, a growing number of liberals support in-person school only, rather than hybrid or remote learning. The partisan gap on this question has narrowed since early this year.
The remaining gaps
To be sure, the partisan divides over COVID have not disappeared.
Conservatives are much less likely to be vaccinated or boosted, which means that many are voluntarily exposing themselves to COVID risk. And very liberal Americans remain more worried about the virus than almost any other demographic group, including the elderly.
That pattern does not seem consistent with scientific reality, given that the very liberal are younger than any other ideological group and that COVID’s effects are far worse for older people. But the pattern may help explain why young people in our poll reported wearing masks slightly more often than older people — and why the few schools and workplaces that still have mask mandates tend to be in liberal enclaves.
Still, here’s a prediction: Absent a major change in the virus itself (such as a dangerous new variant), the level of COVID anxiety will continue declining in coming months, across political tribes.
A final note
The Food and Drug Administration approved the next generation of booster shots — designed to be even more effective against the latest variants — on Wednesday. As soon as next week, these new shots will be available to Americans 12 and older.
A useful rule of thumb is that anybody who has not yet received a shot in 2022 should consider doing so in coming weeks. As Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID coordinator, said: “It’s really important, especially if you’re at elevated risk, but really for anyone. If you have not had a booster this year, it’s critical that you go and get one.”
Severe COVID illness continues to be heavily concentrated among people over 65, especially those who are unvaccinated or not current on their booster shots.