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New Survey Shows How Effects Of COVID-19 Got So Bad In The U.S.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Top health officials are calling for Americans to get tested for coronavirus or quarantine if they traveled over the Thanksgiving holiday. That's because cases in most parts of the U.S. are at historic highs, and officials are bracing for the pandemic to get worse. Well, new results from a major national survey about the pandemic help explain how we got here and display a major partisan divide in people's behavior. And NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is with us this morning to talk us through it. Good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us about the survey. What did it find?

STEIN: So it's the biggest ongoing national survey about the pandemic in the U.S. Researchers have been questioning tens of thousands of Americans every month since April, and the latest results out today are pretty striking. It shows how things got so bad in the U.S. The proportion of people doing things to prevent the virus from spreading just plummeted between April and October. For example, spending time indoors with people not from their immediate household doubled, going to restaurants tripled - going to work, gyms, churches, all way up.

Here's David Lazer from Northeastern. He helps run the survey.

DAVID LAZER: We let our guard down. And it was still lurking. It was still there, right? And COVID-19 came roaring back.

STEIN: Now, there is a bit of good news in the survey. Mask-wearing did increase during the same period, but apparently just not enough to offset how much people stopped doing things like keeping their distance from other people. Even washing their hands religiously fell dramatically to all-time lows.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it's hard to understand, considering what we knew about the virus, even at the beginning. So some people didn't follow the health advice. What's the breakdown?

STEIN: Yeah, so the survey found some interesting differences, actually. Women are more likely to practice social distancing than men. Asian Americans and African Americans are more likely to do it than whites. So are older and more educated people than younger and less educated people. And there's also a partisan divide. Democrats have consistently scored higher than Republicans on a hundred-point scale the researchers used to measure people's overall behavior. And that gap became a chasm over the summer. Here's David Lazer again.

LAZER: Differences between Democrats and Republicans in the spring were very small. Both were in the 80s on this hundred-point scale. And Democrats have slipped to 60-something and Republicans have dropped to 40-something. So that tiny gap of a handful of points has jumped to roughly 20 points on a hundred-point scale. So that's gone way, way up.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we know some Republicans, including the president, undermined expert advice. So isn't this partisan divide going to be a huge problem in trying to get the country on the same page under a new administration?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. You know, it is. But the survey actually does have some encouraging news about that. There are still big differences between Republicans and Democrats in terms of their support for things like, you know, asking people to stay home and requiring businesses to close and canceling football games and concerts, limiting restaurants to carryout only. Democrats are far more likely to support all of those things.

But the good news is even a majority of Republicans say they support many of those same things - you know, not closing schools or businesses, but they do support avoiding gatherings and canceling sports and entertainment events and even restricting restaurants and domestic travel. I talked about this with Jeffrey Shaman at Columbia University.

JEFFREY SHAMAN: Overall, it is encouraging to see how many people want to take this seriously. I just think that we need to have both leadership as to what we're doing and how we're going to be confronting this going forward. And that's just been absent completely. And we need economic relief for people who are really hurting from this.

STEIN: So Shaman hopes a more coordinated response by federal and state leaders and more relief from Congress could help minimize the terrible winter that's looming ahead of us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, speaking of partisan differences - before you go - last night, White House coronavirus advisor Scott Atlas announced he is resigning. Let's remember - he had theories about, quote, "herd immunity" that were controversial inside and outside the administration. What impact did he have on coronavirus policy in the U.S.?

STEIN: Yes. So Atlas kind of supplanted the influence of respected infectious disease experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci by pushing policies that focused on the economy, opening it up, instead of measures that would slow the spread of the virus like, you know, mask-wearing and social distancing. His support for fringe theories like, you know, letting large numbers of people get infected to reach so-called herd immunity appalled public health experts. They feared it would take just a devastating toll in terms of suffering and deaths.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And here we are. Thank you very much. That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

STEIN: You bet, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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