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American Public Responses to COVID-19 – April 2020

Executive Summary

Drawing on a scientific national survey (N = 3,933; including 3,188 registered voters), this report describes how the American public is responding to the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S.


Americans Prioritize Protecting Public Health Over the Economy

  • By a margin of more than 5-to-1, Americans say stopping the spread of the coronavirus (84%) is more important than stopping the decline in the economy (16%).
  • Large majorities of Americans across all demographic groups prioritize public health over the economy, including those who have been laid off or are seeking work, and Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, including 2016 Trump voters.
  • Implications for Communication:
    • Policy makers would be wise to assure the public that the public is safe before relaxing measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus.


Americans Want More Action to Limit the Epidemic

  • Majorities of Americans think that citizens themselves, the U.S. Congress, and President Trump should be doing more to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
  • More than one in three Americans think that President Trump (38%) and citizens themselves (36%) should be doing “much more” to limit its spread.
  • Only 8% or fewer Americans say citizens, the U.S. Congress, President Trump, local officials, or their governor should be doing less to limit the epidemic.
  • Implications for Communication:
    • Calls for a nationwide, “all hands on deck” response to the coronavirus are likely to continue resonating with Americans.


Americans Expect the Epidemic and the Economy to Get Worse

  • As of April 7 2020, most Americans expected that both the spread of the coronavirus and its negative impacts on the economy would get worse over the next month.
    • 64% thought the epidemic would get “much worse” (25%) or “worse” (39%)
    • 70% thought the economy would get “much worse” (28%) or “worse” (42%) 


Americans Want More Information

  • 94% of Americans say they have been following the news about the coronavirus either “very” (63%) or “fairly” (30%) closely.
  • However, a majority of Americans say they need more information about the coronavirus. About eight in ten say they need either “a little” (22%), “some” (35%), or “a lot” more information (25%).
  • African Americans, liberal/moderate Republicans, and people living in urban areas are more likely than other Americans to say they need “a lot more information.”
  • Implications for Communication:
    • Information campaigns about the epidemic should continue.
    • Communication should be targeted and tailored to the needs of specific audiences. Civic organizations that serve these groups and media organizations with large numbers of individuals from these groups among their audience should aim to meet their information needs.
    • The organizations that are working to inform the public about coronavirus should coordinate to develop simple clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted messengers – a time-tested formula for effective public health communication campaigns.


Americans Trust Particular Sources of Information 

  • About 9 in 10 Americans trust health professionals – doctors, infectious disease experts, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – as sources of accurate information about the spread of the coronavirus.
  • Large majorities of Americans also trust local news outlets (TV and newspapers) and national news networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) as sources of accurate information about the coronavirus.
  • More than half of Americans trust their members of Congress and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, while fewer Americans trust President Trump, as a source of accurate information about the coronavirus.
  • Implications for Communication:
    • Widely-trusted news outlets should continue to cover the issue thoroughly.
    • All news outlets should use health professionals to inform the public about the spread of coronavirus and how to protect public health.
    • Political leaders should rely upon, often defer to, and amplify the voices of public health professionals when informing the public about the spread of coronavirus and what actions can be taken to protect public health.


Most, But Not All, Americans Understand Important Facts About the Coronavirus

  • A large majority of Americans know important facts about the coronavirus:
    • 92% know that frequent handwashing is a way to protect against coronavirus
    • 92% know that avoiding large gatherings of people can help prevent its spread
    • 91% know coronavirus can be spread by people without symptoms
    • 90% know a fever is a symptom of coronavirus
    • 82% know a dry cough is a symptom of coronavirus
    • 81% know there is currently no cure
    • 78% know the coronavirus can live on some surfaces for days
    • 74% know people can get infected if they are within 6 feet of someone who is infected
  • Smaller majorities of Americans know that certain claims are false:
    • 75% know it is false that there is currently a vaccine proven to prevent coronavirus
    • 62% know it is false that antibiotics can prevent or kill the coronavirus
    • 60% know it is false that drinking water can flush the coronavirus into your stomach, where acid kills it
  • Implications for Communication:
    • Communicators have done an admirable job conveying key facts about the coronavirus to the American public.
    • There are, however, smaller but significant proportions of the public who are still confused about certain facts. It is important that communicators focus and tailor their information campaigns for these Americans.


Most, But Not All, Americans Have Adopted Protective Behaviors

  • A large majority of Americans have adopted a range of protective behaviors:
    • 90% are more frequently washing their hands with soap and water
    • 87% are keeping at least 6 feet away from other people outside their home
    • 84% have stopped shaking people’s hands
    • 84% are more frequently cleaning or disinfecting their home or workspace
    • 84% are calling or checking in with friends, family, or neighbors
    • 82% are more frequently covering their mouth and nose with a tissue when sneezing or coughing and 78% are using their elbow or shoulder
    • 77% are more frequently using hand sanitizer
    • 70% have stocked up on food, supplies, and medications
  • Fewer Americans have purchased (39%) or worn a mask in public (44%).
  • Younger Americans are less likely than other adults to be taking protective measures, or to feel that it is socially normative to take protective actions.
  • Implications for Communication:
    • People who are taking protective action should communicate to those who aren’t why it is important to do so, both through their words and their actions – by modeling the protective behaviors.
    • Communicating that we all need to adopt protective behaviors because they help protect the most vulnerable people in our community (including parents and grandparents, health care workers, people keeping our grocery stores open, etc.) has been shown in other research to be very effective.
    • Media outlets with large youth audiences should stress the special importance of young people taking action to protect others.


Americans Perceive Strong Social Norms to Adopt Protective Behaviors 

  • Most Americans perceive strong social norms in support of taking actions that limit the spread of the coronavirus.
  • Nearly all Americans (92%) say their family and friends are making either “a great deal” (46%), “a lot” (32%), or “a moderate amount” of effort (15%) to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Additionally, 93% of Americans say it is “extremely” (56%), “very” (27%), or “moderately” important (10%) to their family and friends that they take action to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
  • Americans also feel a high degree of confidence in their ability to take actions that will protect themselves and others from being infected.
  • Implications for Communication:
    • Information campaigns should emphasize these strong social norms and people should remind their family and friends to remain vigilant until the danger has passed for everyone.