Eight in 10 Americans Remain Concerned They’ll Catch Virus

Survey of 700+ U.S. adults on COVID-19 practices & surge-related fears

We’ve got almost a year’s worth of the reality of COVID-19 under our belts, and most Americans are no doubt ready to put 2020 in the past. While there are reasons for optimism with a vaccine campaign in its early stages, much of the country remains gripped by a surge in the virus.

We wanted to understand more about how people’s lives have changed because of COVID-19. How much fear exists around the virus? How strict are people about their prevention methods? What about their jobs, and how much difference did the spring stimulus payment make?

We asked about all those topics and more, and what we found is that the majority of Americans fear contracting the virus, but a large percentage remain unconvinced that widely accepted prevention methods like masking and avoiding contact with those outside the household should be expected.

Read on for the full study, and check out the key findings below:

  • Eighty-three percent of respondents have some level of concern that they will contract COVID-19, and most people (76 percent) said they were at least somewhat prepared in case someone in their house gets the virus.
  • Nearly 93 percent say they always or usually wear a mask in public.
  • Only about one in five people leave the house once a week or less.

COVID-19 Status & Concerns

Our study found that more than eight in 10 Americans are concerned about catching the virus, though only about one in four say they’re “extremely concerned.” Less than five percent say they’re not at all worried about catching COVID-19.

Level of concern over contracting COVID-19
Extremely concerned 25.9%
Very concerned 28.9%
Somewhat concerned 28.5%
Not so concerned 10.3%
Not at all concerned 4.7%
I am currently diagnosed with COVID-19 0.7%
Other 1.1%

A separate question asked respondents about whether they already had COVID-19, and while just under 26 percent of all respondents said they were “extremely concerned” about catching the coronavirus, that rose to about 36 percent for folks who had it already.

The risk of contracting COVID-19 remains high across all states, and thousands of new cases are being reported every day. Many states have set daily new-case records, and December 9 marked the first day the nation recorded more than 3,000 deaths from the virus in a single day.

As the virus surges while we head into the winter holiday season, our survey respondents are worried about illness and death in their loved ones, how closely people in their communities comply with health guidance, and the acute and long-term medical issues the virus poses.

Among all respondents, the chance of family members becoming sick was the single biggest concern on a list in which respondents could select their five biggest worries amid the COVID-19 surge. The top four fears are directly related to the virus itself, while the fifth — anti-mask behavior — was one of the five biggest concerns for nearly 27 percent of people, coming in slightly higher than the risk of getting sick themselves.

Fears over possible new public health restrictions were also high, though none of them broke the 15 percent mark. However, new limits on travel, gatherings, and personal freedom were all in the double digits.

Concerns related to recent national COVID-19 spike
Risk of sickness for family members 38.0%
Losing loved one 36.1%
Public’s lack of compliance with health guidelines 28.1%
Long-term side effects of COVID-19 27.3%
Anti-mask behavior 26.8%
Risk of sickness to myself 24.5%
Hospitals at capacity 23.8%
Dying from COVID-19 or COVID-19 complications 22.1%
Managing mental health 15.2%
Limited personal freedom 14.6%
Forced vaccination 12.7%
Limits on travel 12.3%
Infection risk at workplace 11.9%
Loneliness and isolation 11.9%
Financial ramifications (other than related to employment or housing) 11.6%
Losing job 11.1%
Limits on in-person gatherings 10.2%
Less access to medical care for non-COVID related treatment 9.0%
Distrust in national authorities 7.7%
Limits on holiday celebrations 7.1%
My favorite business(s) closing 6.8%
Distrust in health authorities (WHO, CDC, etc.) 6.7%
Distrust in Big Pharma 6.6%
Distrust in local or state authorities 6.6%
Eldercare 6.3%
Eviction for not making rent 5.7%
China 4.9%
Childcare 4.5%
Being furloughed 4.1%
Getting infected again 4.0%
Confusion over lockdown orders 3.7%
Foreclosure 3.0%
No concerns 2.6%
Other 1.8%

Women and those 45 and over have the highest levels of concern over sickness in their families. More than 41 percent of women said family members getting sick was one of their five primary concerns amid the COVID wave. That was also the top answer for men but at a much lower rate — about 34 percent.

Similarly, roughly 40 percent of both those between the ages of 45 and 60 and those over 60 listed family members being sickened by the virus as one of their five biggest worries, while for those between 18 and 44, the biggest concern was losing a loved one to the virus. The vast majority of U.S. deaths attributed to COVID-19 so far have been in older populations — about 79 percent of victims are over 65, and 97 percent are over 45.

Prevention & Preparation

Limiting exposure to people outside your household and wearing masks in public (when it’s necessary to go out) remain the two biggest pieces of advice to avoid getting or spreading COVID-19.

Few Americans are staying home all the time. Just over one-third leave the house a few times per week, with nearly 20 percent heading out of the house multiple times per day.

Times leaving house in the past week
Multiple times a day 19.7%
A few times a week 37.5%
Once a week 15.8%
Once a day 22.2%
I have not left my house in the last week 4.9%

While few of us are remaining hunkered down, almost all respondents said they wear a mask in public most or all of the time. Less than two percent said they never wear a mask when in public.

Public mask-wearing frequency
Every time 82.5%
Most of the time 10.2%
Half of the time 4.2%
Less than half of the time 1.6%
Never 1.5%

Among all respondents, nearly 83 percent wear a mask all or most of the time they are in public. This figure is much higher for women (87 percent) than for men (76 percent), and similar differences exist along age lines, with frequent mask compliance rising with age.

Frequent public mask-wearing by age*
18-29 88.3%
30-44 91.5%
45-60 94.9%
> 60 96.0%

* Respondents who wear a mask in public “every time” or “most of the time”

Those who live in sparsely populated areas are least likely to report they wear a mask in public all or most of the time, while those living in suburban areas have the highest mask-wearing rate by community type.

Frequent public mask-wearing by community type*
Suburban 95.0%
Urban 93.9%
Rural 87.6%
Semi-rural 84.5%

* Respondents who wear a mask in public “every time” or “most of the time”

Less than one in four people said that in their communities, everyone wears a mask in public, but another 53 percent said most people do wear masks. Less than five percent of respondents said that few if any people wear masks in public where they live.

Public mask-wearing, others
All of them wear masks 22.7%
Most of them wear masks 53.4%
Some of them wear masks 19.3%
Few of them wear masks 4.2%
None of them wear masks 0.4%

Perhaps not surprisingly, public mask-wearing varies by the type of community in which the respondent resides, though it’s important to note that in all cases, at least half of respondents said that most people they see in public wear masks. Total mask compliance is highest in suburban communities (nearly 27 percent).

High rate of public mask-wearing by community type*
Urban 78.9%
Suburban 78.1%
Semi-rural 69.0%
Rural 68.5%

* Respondents who said “all” or “most” of the people they see in public are wearing masks

The majority of respondents would certainly prefer others to wear masks in public, as more than 52 percent said they “strongly disapprove” of forgoing masks in public, while another 15 percent said they “disapprove.” Conversely, nearly 18 percent “strongly approve” or “approve” of people not using masks in public.

Personal view on lack of masks in public
Strongly approve 9.5%
Approve 8.2%
Neither approve or disapprove 15.1%
Disapprove 15.0%
Strongly disapprove 52.3%

Our survey was conducted in the second week of December, as many cities and states were considering or had implemented additional travel restrictions and lockdowns to curb viral spread. In March, we conducted surveys to see how prepared Americans were feeling as they headed into the first quarantine or shelter-in-place phase, a new concept for the entire country at the time.

Compared to our first shelter-in-place survey, which was conducted during the weekend of March 14-15, a similar percentage of people say they feel “somewhat prepared” for current or potential further lockdowns (40 percent said they felt “somewhat prepared” then).

Preparation for most recent or further lockdowns
Extremely prepared 17.0%
Very prepared 31.1%
Somewhat prepared 39.1%
Not so prepared 10.4%
Not at all prepared 2.5%

While middling feelings of lockdown preparation were similar between the two time periods, there were other significant changes that should be a sign that people have learned what lockdown entails and how to cope with it. During our first March survey, about nine percent said they weren’t at all prepared for lockdown; today, that’s less than three percent.

Men are slightly more likely than women to report feeling “extremely prepared” or “very prepared” for additional lockdowns (about 51 percent vs. 46 percent), but bigger differences were apparent along generational lines. Those over 60 were far more likely to report high lockdown preparation than their younger counterparts.

High lockdown preparation level by age*
18-29 43.3%
30-44 41.7%
45-60 46.9%
> 60 61.3%

* Respondents who say they’re “extremely prepared” or “very prepared”

Most people said they felt prepared for someone in their household contracting the virus. About one-third said they were “extremely prepared” or “very prepared” for that, while another 41 percent felt “somewhat prepared.” Importantly, though, 79 percent said they hadn’t spoken with their doctor about what to do if someone in their house gets COVID-19.

Preparation for household member contracting virus
Extremely prepared 9.4%
Very prepared 26.0%
Somewhat prepared 40.9%
Not so prepared 18.3%
Not at all prepared 5.5%

Many Americans could build a COVID-19 toolkit in just a few minutes, judging by how many of them have important prevention and medical items at the ready. Nearly 90 percent of respondents said they had face masks on hand, while about 82 percent had water, and just under 80 percent had hand sanitizer. Just over half, though, said they had an ample supply of essential prescriptions.

Preparation items available
Face masks 87.2%
Water 81.7%
Wet wipes/hand sanitizer 79.3%
At least a week’s worth of food 71.8%
Over-the-counter medication 71.3%
Thermometer 70.7%
First aid kit 60.2%
Essential prescription medication 55.0%
Pulse oximeter 17.8%
None 0.8%

Work Life & Child Care

Less than half of respondents in our survey are employed full-time (about 44 percent), and just under 12 percent have been furloughed or list their status as unemployed. Our survey did not directly ask those who were unemployed or furloughed if COVID-19 was the cause. Less than 40 percent of people said nothing had changed about their work life as a result of the pandemic, but there were significant differences along gender and generational lines.

Changes in work life
Nothing 37.8%
Newly telecommuting/working from home 17.9%
Work events/conferences canceled or rescheduled 17.2%
Working fewer hours 15.4%
Traveling less for work 14.6%
Pay cut 8.7%
Taken on gig work (Postmates, Instacart, Doordash, Uber etc) 7.3%
Laid off 6.4%
Furloughed 5.7%
Employer went out of business 3.3%
Early retirement 2.3%

Not surprisingly, the group least likely to say their jobs have been affected by the pandemic were those most likely to have retired already or be close to retirement age. More than 53 percent of 60-plus respondents said nothing had changed about their work lives due to COVID-19.

Those between 30 and 44 were the most likely to report shifting to telecommuting arrangements (about 24 percent). Those between 45 and 60 had the highest percentage of layoffs (nine percent), while those between 18 and 29 were most likely to have taken on gig work (12 percent).

Select changes in work life by age
Work life changes 18-29 30-44 45-60 60+
Nothing 31.0% 29.4% 38.4% 53.2%
Newly telecommuting/working from home 18.1% 24.2% 18.6% 9.2%
Work events/conferences canceled or rescheduled 19.9% 19.4% 21.5% 8.1%
Working fewer hours 19.3% 17.5% 13.0% 12.1%
Traveling less for work 17.5% 17.1% 15.3% 8.7%

Work isn’t the only thing that’s changed about people’s day-to-day lives, as schools continue adjusting their schedules at all levels of education. This can have a huge impact on parents of young children, as well as those who have college-age adult children living at home. About 43 percent of survey respondents have children, including young kids or college-age youths, living with them.

Nearly 35 percent of fathers in our study said changes to their kids’ school routines have not had any impact on their ability to work, which one would assume tracks with reporting that indicates mothers are bearing the brunt of added childcare burdens due to school closures. However, by a similar percentage to each other, moms and dads both say changes in their kids’ lives have affected their work.

Impact of school/children’s schedule changes to parents’ ability to work, by gender
Work impact Female Male
Great impact 25.0% 18.1%
Some impact 19.4% 19.6%
Minor impact 17.2% 24.1%
No impact 27.8% 34.6%
No recent changes 10.6% 3.8%

Some differences were notable along income lines, though the minority of parents in all income brackets said changes to children’s lives had a “great impact” or “some impact” on their ability to work.

Major impact of school/children’s schedule changes to parents’ ability to work, by income*
$0-$24,999 47.2%
$25,000-$49,999 40.3%
$50,000-$74,999 35.6%
$75,000-$99,999 41.3%
$100,000-$124,999 37.0%
$125,000+ 44.4%

* Respondents with children in the home who said changes to children’s lives had “great impact” or “some impact” on their ability to work

Perceptions of Government Response

Just under two-thirds of respondents said they believed planned or current lockdowns would be effective in helping curb the spread of the virus, with almost 20 percent saying these measures would be “very effective.”

Perception of effectiveness of current, recent, or upcoming lockdowns
Very effective 18.4%
Somewhat effective 42.9%
Neither effective nor ineffective 19.4%
Somewhat ineffective 9.4%
Very ineffective 10.0%

Those who already had COVID-19 have a much more positive view of lockdowns than the general public. Nearly 29 percent said they believed planned or possible lockdowns would be “very effective,” while only about two percent said they wouldn’t help at all.

Along generational lines, those over 60 were the most polarized on the need for lockdowns, with just under 13 percent not having a view one way or another on lockdown effectiveness. Still, the view that lockdowns are effective rises with age, as those 60 and older were about 10 percentage points more likely to say lockdowns make a difference than their 18-to-29 counterparts.

Effectiveness rating of current, recent, or upcoming lockdowns by age*
18-29 57.9%
30-44 55.9%
45-60 66.1%
> 60 67.1%

* Respondents who rated lockdowns as “very effective” or “somewhat effective”

Those who embrace other prevention efforts may be more likely to say lockdowns are an effective tool. For example, about 52 percent of people said they “strongly disapprove” of seeing others in public without masks, and that’s the group for whom approval of lockdowns is highest — 75 percent of them say lockdowns are “somewhat effective” or “very effective.”

Conversely, just under 10 percent of people said they “strongly approve” of people going without masks in public, and this group was most likely (about 34 percent) to say lockdowns are “very ineffective.”

Another hotly debated government response measure was a so-far-one-time stimulus payment issued to all Americans in April. Congress has debated several other bills that would provide additional payments, but none have passed so far.

Did the stimulus provide the financial boost it was designed for? Several personal characteristics seemed to have an impact on respondents’ feelings about the stimulus, though across the board, the payment received good marks. Overall, just over one in five said the stimulus wasn’t sufficient to help their financial situation during the pandemic.

Perception of sufficiency of first federal stimulus payment
Very sufficient 23.7%
Somewhat sufficient 29.0%
Neither sufficient nor insufficient 27.1%
Somewhat insufficient 9.4%
Very insufficient 10.8%

Age

Older adults were much more likely than their younger counterparts to say the stimulus provided a sufficient boost. Only about 15 percent of those between 18 and 29 said the payment was adequate, compared to almost 29 percent of those 60 and older. However, those between 30 and 44 were most likely to say the stimulus was insufficient to assist them with their financial needs.

Good or bad perceptions of effectiveness of first federal stimulus payment by age*
Age Good Bad
18-29 15.2% 11.7%
30-44 21.8% 17.1%
45-60 28.3% 8.5%
> 60 28.9% 4.6%

* Good = “very sufficient”; bad = “very insufficient”

Household income

Those for whom the stimulus had the potential to have the most impact — people with less money in their bank accounts and lower income levels — gave the stimulus the highest marks (about one-third said it was “very sufficient”). However, this group also had the highest percentage of respondents who said the payment was “very insufficient.”

Generally, as household income rose, respondents tended to be less likely to rate the stimulus as good, though the opposite was a less-notable trend. In other words, even those who make more money weren’t necessarily more likely to say the stimulus didn’t give them enough help.

Good or bad perceptions of effectiveness of first federal stimulus payment by household income*
Household income Good Bad
$0-$24,999 32.5% 13.5%
$25,000-$49,999 24.4% 13.1%
$50,000-$74,999 25.0% 11.7%
$75,000-$99,999 21.8% 5.9%
$100,000-$124,999 21.8% 5.5%
$125,000+ 16.1% 8.0%

* Good = “very sufficient”; bad = “very insufficient”

Employment status

Only about 17 percent of unemployed people said the payment was “very sufficient,” while 24 percent of full-time workers said the same. Those who’ve been furloughed were most likely to give the stimulus high marks, followed by retired people and part-time workers. In no group did more than 15 percent of people say the stimulus was “very insufficient,” though in none of the groups did more than one-third of respondents say it was “very sufficient,” either.

Good or bad perceptions of effectiveness of first federal stimulus payment by employment status*
Employment status Good Bad
Employed full-time 24.2% 10.4%
Employed part-time 30.1% 14.0%
Self-employed 16.0% 14.0%
Retired 29.9% 3.5%
Unemployed 17.1% 14.6%

* Good = “very sufficient”; bad = “very insufficient”

Conclusion

Life has changed considerably since this time last year, and there can be no doubt that even more changes are on the horizon. As COVID-19 spikes around the country, Americans remain concerned they’ll get infected, and our research indicates that most Americans are serious about doing their part to prevent that from happening.

For more related research from Safehome.org, please see:

Methodology

We surveyed nearly 750 U.S. adults about a broad range of issues related to COVID-19, their views on prevention methods, and the government response. Our survey was conducted online during the week of December 7.

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