It’s Now Clear How Misinformed The Public Has Been About The Risks Of COVID-19

(Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Deputy News Editor
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Now that President Joe Biden has declared that Americans can begin to return to life as normal after the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s possible to look back at the toll it wrought on the United States and how that compares to the perception of the American people.

After recent polling showed that a majority of Americans are ready to begin moving toward a society without COVID-19 restrictions, Democratic governors and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began to lift mask mandates and relax mask guidance that Democratic voters have largely supported throughout the pandemic. There’s a sharp partisan divide still between Democrats who are more wary about moving on and Republicans who generally already have, and it can be explained by how misinformed the American people are about the risks of COVID-19.

Since January 21, 2020, there have been 78.8 million positive COVID-19 tests in the United States, according to the CDC, and according to any expert, at least tens of millions more undiagnosed cases. As of March 1, 947,882 Americans have died of the virus, the vast majority of them elderly or with serious comorbidities. (RELATED: Biden Takes Credit For Defeating COVID-19 In State Of The Union As Midterms Approach)

1,433 Americans under age 18 have died with COVID-19, making up about 0.1% of total deaths. Seventy-five percent of COVID-19 deaths have been in Americans aged 65 and older, and among the vaccinated, over 75% of COVID-19 deaths occurred in people with at least four comorbidities, such as obesity, diabetes or cancer.

However, the average American, even the young and healthy, vastly overestimates how at-risk they are of a negative outcome from the virus.

Nearly a full year into the pandemic, in December of 2020, the Brookings Institution produced a report based on a Franklin Templeton and Gallup survey of 35,000 American adults. It found that Americans believed about 8% of COVID-19 deaths occurred in those 24 and younger, when the real portion was 0.1%. Respondents overestimated the death share for every age group except for 65 and older; they believed seniors made up around 39% of deaths, when the real portion was 81%.

Members of both parties wildly overestimated COVID-19 deaths among young people, although it was more pronounced among Democrats. In that same survey, more than one-third of Americans said that COVID-19 gave someone at least a 50% chance of ended up hospitalized. The real answer is somewhere between 1% and 5%, and only about one-in-five American adults answered correctly.

Even as the pandemic raged on, and more information became available which should have made the public more informed, more recent surveys found Americans were still dramatically off in their risk assessment. A September 2021 survey from Rasmussen Reports asked Americans what they believed the mortality rate was from COVID-19.

The real number is hard to precisely pin down, but estimates are under 2%. But 17% of Americans said it was 5% or higher, and 19% said it was 10% or higher.

Interestingly, Rasmussen found that Americans who don’t watch cable news at all were more likely to peg the correct death rate than those who watch CNN, MSNBC or Fox News.

It’s no wonder why Americans are continually overstating the risk of the pandemic. A study published near the end of 2020 found that American media’s coverage of COVID-19 skewed dramatically more negative than that of other countries. Ninety-one percent of U.S. media coverage of the pandemic at the time was negative, compared to 54% for international sources and, notably, 65% for scientific journals.

“The negativity of the U.S. major media is notable even in areas with positive scientific developments including school re-openings and vaccine trials. Media negativity is unresponsive to changing trends in new COVID-19 cases or the political leanings of the audience,” the paper’s abstract said.

A new Axios-Ipsos poll found that a sizeable chunk of Americans are still concerned about the virus, even with more than 80% of those aged 5 and up at least partially vaccinated and death and hospitalization numbers cratering. Sixty-four percent of Americans said they were still concerned about the virus or another outbreak, and 55% of Democrats specifically said a return to normal is risky.

In January, President Biden’s approval rating on the issue of the pandemic dipped under water, and it remains there now with about 47% disapproving of his performance, according to FiveThirtyEight.