14 Months Into the Pandemic, What Do We Miss Most?
The latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) represents a seismic shift in what is deemed “safe behavior” for vaccinated individuals. Following a year of public health protocols that uprooted so much of our daily lives, the announcement is a welcome change for many Americans that are eager for a degree of normalcy more than 14 months into the pandemic.
Yet with more than one-half of the population completely unvaccinated, dangerous coronavirus variants surging around the world, and an average of over 30,000 cases each day in the U.S., much uncertainty remains. For the next several months — and possibly years — what this “new normal” looks like for many Americans will remain unclear. In the meantime, understanding what particular long-restricted activities people look forward to resuming can help policy makers determine how to prioritize new guidelines.
To do that, our team at Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness collaborated with the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in a national survey to determine high priority activities that would reinforce the idea that we are making meaningful progress toward a post-pandemic “new” normal.
From a nationally representative survey of 1,266 U.S. adults, a few key themes emerged. The three most consistent areas the general public seemed most intent on returning to were:
- Large, in-person social gatherings (such as weddings, sporting events, concerts, or theater);
- The option to shed public health protocols such as mask-wearing and social distancing; and
- The ability to travel freely.
Nearly one in three Americans responded that they most miss large in-person events. But the survey also highlighted some significant differences in what Americans most looked forward to when grouped by political affiliation.
For instance, 17% of Americans — the second-largest majority — indicated that they most looked forward to not needing to follow COVID-19 restrictions such as mask-wearing and social distancing. But looking closer, 30% of Trump voters said this is what they looked forward to the most, while just 9% of Biden voters said the same. Substantial differences also emerged along age and generational lines, with younger Americans (between the ages of 18 to 39) indicating that they most missed the ability to travel freely nearly twice as often as those over the age of 74.
As policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels — as well as decision-makers in the private sector — piece together new policies in line with guidance from the CDC, understanding what Americans most want will be crucial to safely navigate this uncertain, highly dynamic time of transition. The data captured in this polling brief can help guide policymakers in their understanding of which societal aspirations should be prioritized to signal important steps in finally getting beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, an enduring crisis which has turned life in America and around the globe upside down.
It is our recommendation that in order to safely allow Americans to attend large, in-person social events, travel freely, and shed public health protocols, policymakers should consider developing and implementing mandatory vaccination checks in tandem with public and private sector entities that draw large crowds. Vaccination campaigns must also continue to target at-risk areas and underserved communities, including those that are newly eligible for vaccinations such as children and adolescents.
Finally, it is important to recognize that as long as there are severe outbreaks in other parts of the world, for instance in South Asia or South America, nowhere — including the United States — can be confident that it will remain safe or avoid another major surge. In other words, steps to reflect progress in overcoming the pandemic are important to the national psyche, but we must proceed with caution, being sure not to establish false hopes that we are, in May 2021, fully and definitively yet free from the threat of SARS-CoV-2.
Take a closer look at the report and accompanying data here.
Irwin Redlener is director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness.
Sean Hansen is a staff associate at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness.