Polls show trust in scientific, political institutions eroding

Bonnie Cash

The American public is beginning to lose trust in political leaders and scientific institutions as the coronavirus pandemic drags into its sixth month, troubling signs that raise the prospect that millions of Americans may not take advice or get a vaccine once one becomes available.

Two new surveys show most Americans still trust leading scientists and institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but that those levels of trust are beginning to erode.

Nearly 8 in 10 Americans trust the CDC, according to a survey conducted by the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States, a group of researchers at Northeastern University, Harvard, Rutgers and Northwestern University. That figure is down from 87 percent who said they trusted the Atlanta-based CDC in April.

 A poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 67 percent of Americans have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the CDC to provide reliable information about the coronavirus. That number has dropped 16 percentage points since April. Trust in the CDC among Republicans has dropped a whopping 30 percentage points.

The Consortium poll found fewer than half, 47 percent, trust the news media, while just 43 percent say they trust President Trump and only 42 percent trust Congress. Those numbers have all declined precipitously from the spring, when most Americans rallied to their leaders as the crisis began to unfold.

“I don’t think anyone is thrilled with the status quo. It’s been a disappointment as a general proposition,” said David Lazer, a political scientist at Northeastern and one of the study’s authors.

About half of Americans say they have a great deal or some level of trust in Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, the poll found.

Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, is still viewed as the most trusted individual to deliver information about the virus, according to both surveys. But a stark partisan divide has emerged: Democrats are now more likely to say they trust Fauci’s advice, but his image among Republicans has dropped 29 points.

“The CDC and Dr. Anthony Fauci are still the top trusted sources for information about Covid,” said Liz Hamel, who directs public opinion research for the Kaiser Family Foundation. “We see increasing political polarization in how people think about those two sources.”

Across states, residents have responded most strongly to governors who acted quickly and early to combat the virus. More than three-quarters of Vermont residents approve of the way Gov. Phil Scott (R) has handled the pandemic, a higher rating than any governor in the nation. Governors in Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island all have approval ratings north of 60 percent.

At the same time, governors who raced to reopen their economies suffer from some of the worst approval ratings. Just 30 percent of Arizona residents like what they have seen from Gov. Doug Ducey (R), who waited months before allowing cities to impose mask mandates; only 29 percent approve of the way Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has handled the situation in Florida. In Iowa, which is suffering the worst outbreak on a per capita basis in the United States, just 26 percent approve of the job Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) has done.

Only 31 percent approve of Hawaii Gov. David Ige’s (D) handling of the outbreak. In a recent interview, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) called his state’s handling of the pandemic “objectively terrible.”

Trust in institutions will become an urgent necessity if and when a potential vaccine is found to be safe and effective, experts said. If Americans do not trust those who tell them a vaccine is safe, they will be less likely to accept it, prolonging a pandemic that might otherwise be brought under control. 

“Part of the reason why trust is important is that a lot of what we need to combat the pandemic is voluntary cooperation of citizens. One of the places you need trust is someone saying trust me, inject this into your body. That requires trust that there has been due diligence to check that this has been safe and effective,” Lazer said. 

Just 53 percent of Americans said they would be somewhat or extremely likely to get a vaccine, a 7-point decline in the space of only a month, according to the Consortium’s study.

Most Americans — 62 percent — told Kaiser pollsters they worry the Food and Drug Administration would rush a vaccine without making sure it is safe and effective. There has been vaccine skepticism among both Democrats, who do not trust President Trump not to meddle with the science, and Republicans, some of whom question the very existence of a pandemic that has claimed the lives of nearly 200,000 Americans.

“Republicans in general are not perceiving the coronavirus as as big a risk,” Hamel said. 

Misinformation about the coronavirus and ways to protect against it continue to spread, as well. More than half of Republicans incorrectly believe hydroxychloroquine, a drug often touted by Trump, is an effective treatment, despite scientific studies that show it is not. More than a third of Republicans believe wearing a face mask is harmful to one’s health, which it is not.

The Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking poll surveyed 1,199 Americans from Aug. 28 to Sept. 3, for a margin of error of 3 percentage points. The Consortium’s poll surveyed 21,196 people Aug. 7-26, for a margin of error of less than 1 percentage point.

Tags Anthony Fauci Brian Schatz coronavirus covid-19 pandemic healthcare trust science anthony fauci american public Donald Trump Doug Ducey Joe Biden Ron DeSantis

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