Public Attitudes Towards the Coronavirus Outbreak in Highly Affected Counties

While every state in the nation is dealing with coronavirus cases, different counties in states across the country are experiencing disparate impact of the outbreak. The latest KFF Health Tracking Poll finds that there is some variation in Americans’ attitudes and views on the outbreak based on whether or not they live in an area that was harder hit by the pandemic, but these differences are not as large as some might expect, and in some cases are smaller than divisions by partisan identification.

To examine geographic variation, we matched respondent data from the Late April KFF Health Tracking Poll fielded April 15-20 with coronavirus incidence rates at the county level as of April 17, 2020, as reported by The New York Times. Perhaps not surprisingly, adults in counties with a high number of coronavirus cases (2000 or more cases) are more likely than those in counties with a low number of cases (under 100 cases) to say their life has been disrupted “a lot” by the coronavirus outbreak (60% vs. 49%). Likewise, when measuring affected counties by number of confirmed deaths instead of confirmed cases, those in counties with a high number of confirmed coronavirus deaths (26 or more deaths) are more likely than those in counties with a low number of coronavirus deaths (5 or fewer) to say their lives have been disrupted “a lot” (61% vs. 50%).

Table 1: Adults in most affected counties are more likely than those in least affected counties
to say their life has been disrupted “a lot”.
How much, if at all, has your life been disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak? Cases in county (as of 4/17) Deaths in county (as of 4/17)
Low Medium High Low Medium High
Counties with fewer than 100 cases Counties with 100-1,999 cases Counties with 2000 or more cases Counties with fewer than 6 deaths Counties with 6-25 deaths Counties with 26 or more deaths
A lot 49% 58% 60% 50% 58% 61%
Some 31 27 27 31 25 26
Just a little 14 11 9 13 12 9
Not at all 6 5 4 6 6 4

When it comes to strict shelter-in-place measures that have been put in place across most of the country, large shares say these shelter-in-place measures are “worth it in order to protect people and limit the spread of coronavirus” and say that they can continue adhering to these measures for at least another month. There is some geographic variation, with those in counties that have been most affected by the outbreak being somewhat more likely than those in the least affected counties to say that strict sheltering-in-place measures are worth it in order to protect people and limit the spread of coronavirus (85% in counties with 2000 or more cases vs. 73% in counties with under 100 cases; 85% in counties with high number of deaths and 75% in counties with low number of deaths). Similarly, while most Americans say they are able to continue to adhere to strict social distancing guidelines for at least another month, those in counties that have been most affected by the outbreak are somewhat more likely than those in the least affected counties to say they are able to do so (86% in counties with 2000 or more cases vs. 76% in counties with under 100 cases).

Figure 1: Majorities In Highly Affected And In Less Affected Areas Say Shelter-In-Place Measures Are Worth It, Can Keep It Up For Another Month

As public officials explore ways to trace and contain the outbreak so that they can start easing social distancing and sheltering-in-place restrictions, adults in counties that have been harder hit by coronavirus are somewhat more likely than those in less affected areas to say they are willing to download and use a contact tracing app. For example, about half of those in counties with the highest numbers of cases (53%) and the highest numbers of deaths (50%) say they’d be willing to use an app that tracks who they come into close contact with and then provides that information to public health officials, compared to about four in ten in lower-incidence counties (39% whether counted as cases or deaths).

However, partisanship appears to be a bigger driver than location when it comes to people’s willingness to use such apps. While a majority of Democrats (58%) say they would be willing to use an app that tracks who they come into close contact with and then provides that information to public health officials, about half as many Republicans (29%) say they would be willing to do so.

Figure 2: Half Of Those In Most Affected Counties Are Willing To Use Contract Tracing App That Shares Data With Public Health Officials

Indeed, partisan divides in willingness to use a contact tracing app are wide, irrespective of whether individuals live in an area highly affected by coronavirus. In counties that have had few or no deaths, 51% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say they would be willing to use a contact-tracing app that shares information with public health officials, compared with a much smaller 33% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, a gap of 18 percentage points. In counties with 26 or more deaths, the gap in willingness between Democrat-leaners and Republican-leaners is a similar 24 percentage points (60% vs. 36%).

Table 2: Even in the hardest hit counties, there are large partisan gaps in willingness to use a contact tracing app.
Would you be willing or unwilling to download and use an app for your phone that tracks who you come into close contact with and then provides that information to public health officials? Counties with
fewer than 6 deaths
Counties with
6-25 deaths
Counties with
26 or more deaths
Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents Republicans and Republican-leaning independents Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents Republicans and Republican-leaning independents Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents Republicans and Republican-leaning independents
Willing 51% 33% 58% 29% 60% 36%
Unwilling 48 66 41 70 38 63
Don’t know/Refused 2 1 1 1 2 1

Notably, many of the counties with high numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths to date are in large, metropolitan, urban, and Democratic-leaning areas. As more coronavirus cases occur in counties that have yet to be hard hit by the outbreak, many of which are more rural and Republican-leaning areas, the KFF Health Tracking Poll will continue to gauge and measure changes public attitudes and behaviors.