In 2020, many Americans obsessively kept tabs on COVID-19 data. But with vaccines and natural immunity from infections, the country's preoccupation with the virus has slowly faded. Now a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll finds that many Americans aren't at all concerned about the virus.
The survey, which was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,665 U.S. adults interviewed online from Aug. 17 to Aug. 21, 2023, found that just 7% of Americans now say they are very worried about getting COVID-19, down from 11% in early September 2022 and 13% in April 2022.
A larger number — 31% — say they are at least somewhat worried, although that number is down from 43% in September 2022 and 45% in April 2022.
There is a racial and party divide as well: Black Americans and Democrats were more likely than other groups to say they follow COVID-19 news very closely or somewhat closely.
Overall, only 9% of Americans say they have been closely following current reports about the number of COVID-19 infections, although 33% say they are following the number of infections at least somewhat closely.
"With the messaging from the federal government and their partners in spring of 2023 about ending the pandemic, I think most Americans received that message," Dr. Judith O'Donnell, section chief of infectious diseases at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. "In fact, most Americans returned to living their lives like they did prior to 2020, even before the government messaging was shared. Americans have moved beyond the COVID-19 pandemic."
More people have immunity
There's a reason for the changing attitudes toward COVID-19, Dr. David Cennimo, associate professor of medicine, adult and pediatric infectious diseases, at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Yahoo Life. "Many Americans have been vaccinated. Many more have also achieved some amount of immunity through infection, vaccination or a combination of both," he says.
While we continue to see infections, says Cennimo, "the general sense of the data suggest the risks of severe COVID-19 disease and long COVID have decreased. You could say this is the 'new normal' that was envisioned back in 2020 or 2021."
COVID-19 has also morphed over time
"It's generally now a milder infection than it was," Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. "It can be uncomfortable for two or three days, but hospitalizations are down, and that's well known."
Some view COVID now as being more like the flu (which can cause mild to severe illness and is deadly for some) — something many people don't stress about either, Schaffner points out. "Many have started to put these two infections, more or less, in the same category," he says.
It's been a while since the pandemic started
Many people are simply burned out on COVID-19 and related news, O'Donnell says. "We are in the fourth year of living with the COVID-19 virus, and most Americans have been infected, vaccinated or both," she says. "Population immunity and changes in the virus over time have combined to allow all of us to think differently about COVID-19 now, as compared to 2020 or 2021."
That, combined with the transition of the virus from "a more aggressive infection that caused pneumonia in many, to a virus that now most often causes symptoms similar to the common cold" has helped, O'Donnell says.
Black Americans and Democrats more likely to follow COVID news closely
Back in March 2020, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that twice as many Black Americans were hospitalized because of COVID-19 than are proportionally represented in the country, which, Cennimo says, likely has had an impact on awareness about the virus.
The Kaiser Family Foundation also reports that American Indian or Alaska Native, Black and Hispanic people have had higher rates of death compared with white people over most of the pandemic and especially during surges in cases.
"COVID-19 disproportionately affected more Black communities in the first two years of the pandemic, with severe disease, increased deaths and more long-term consequences of infection, and those experiences have informed ongoing concern and caution around COVID-19 in 2023," O'Donnell says.
While Democrats haven't necessarily been more affected by COVID-19 more than Republicans — in fact, research shows that the excess death rate of Republican voters was 15% higher than that of Democrats — studies have consistently shown that the two political groups have viewed risks of the virus differently since the start of the pandemic. One Pew Research study from June 2020 found that less than half of Republicans said they were worried about the health effects of COVID-19, compared with Democrats, who had a high rate of concern.
Overall, it's a good idea for people to at least be aware of what's happening with COVID-19, particularly with the rise of the new Eris variant in the U.S. and increasing cases of the Pirola variant, which may be highly infectious, Dr. Timothy Murphy, senior associate dean for clinical and translational research at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, tells Yahoo Life.
"This should not be at the level of worry that it was when there were high levels of cases, hospitalizations and deaths," he says. "But COVID is not going away, and it's wise for us to keep an eye on things."
He adds: "It's OK not to worry about COVID every day. But it is important to be vigilant about it because things may change — and quickly."