Majority of Republicans not concerned about coronavirus outbreak as Trump downplays pandemic: poll

Trump's attempts to downplay the outbreak have led to a wide partisan rift in Americans' view of the pandemic

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published March 16, 2020 11:39AM (EDT)

President Donald Trump arrives after a meeting about the coronavirus at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Friday, March 6, 2020, in Atlanta.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Donald Trump arrives after a meeting about the coronavirus at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Friday, March 6, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

President Donald Trump's repeated attempts to downplay the coronavirus pandemic have led to a wide partisan rift in Americans' view of the pandemic, with a majority of Republicans saying they are not concerned about the outbreak.

Just 40% of Republicans say they are "worried" that someone in their family could catch the virus versus 68% of Democrats, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Nearly 80% of Democrats believe the worst is yet to come, compared to just 40% of Republicans.

The views are likely to have a significant impact on individual behavior. Just 30% of Republicans say they plan to stop attending large public gatherings, compared to 61% of Democrats. Only 26% of Republicans believe their day-to-day lives will change in a major way, compared to 56% of Democrats.

Though Trump has sought to downplay the risks posed by the virus, top health officials have repeatedly warned that the worst is yet to come and urged people to avoid large gatherings.

New York, Los Angeles and a growing list of cities and states have closed schools, restaurants, bars and event venues and banned large public gatherings as the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. surged past 3,500 and the number of deaths rose to 61. Experts believe there are thousands of additional cases which have not been identified due to testing delays and restrictions. Officials and medical experts are increasingly concerned that the hospital system could collapse if they are overwhelmed in the same way as hospitals in Italy, where a similar shortage of beds and equipment has led rising death totals and prompted doctors to start rationing care.

The spread has come dangerously close to Trump himself, who announced that he tested negative for the virus after several people he interacted with at his Mar-a-Lago resort tested positive for COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised canceling all gatherings of 50 people or more over the next two months. The Federal Reserve drastically cut interest rates Sunday in response to "significant economic challenges" posed by the pandemic. Despite stark warnings from health officials, Trump and Republican lawmakers have continued to insist that there is nothing to worry about.

"We're all going to be great — we're going to be so good," Trump said during a press conference Sunday." He later urged people to avoid stockpiling supplies, insisting again: "You're doing great."

Trump falsely claimed that the U.S. has "tremendous control" over the virus, a claim he made repeatedly before the number of cases in the country increased more than a hundredfold.

Other members of Trump's team have made similar claims. Top economic adviser Larry Kudlow and White House adviser Kellyanne Conway both argued that the virus was "contained" before it spread to thousands of other people. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin sought to downplay economic concerns, predicting a "big rebound" in the stock market even as futures plummeted. Surgeon General Jerome Adams demanded that reporters stop "criticism and finger-pointing" after the administration's response was heavily criticized as lagging.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, said that the White House called and "yelled" at him after he complained about new airport screening procedures that overwhelmed Chicago's O'Haire Airport and others around the country.

But even as they sought to downplay concerns and tamp down criticism, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned Americans about the reality of what's to come.

"People need to understand that things will get worse before they get better," he told ABC News on Sunday.

He told CNN that "it is possible" that hundreds of thousands of people could die from the virus.

"Our job — our challenge — is to try and make that not happen," he said. "But to think if we go about our daily lives and not worry about everything that it's not going to happen — it could happen, and it could be worse."

He told CBS News that the outcome will "depend on the effectiveness of our response."

"It is correct that the infections are going to go up. Our job is to make sure it doesn't do the maximum peak and actually blunts," Fauci said. "Within that blunt, there will be many new infections. We want to make sure we don't get to that really bad peak."

Trump insisted during his press conference that young people should not worry about the virus.

"Young people, people of good health and groups of people — just are not strongly affected," Trump said. "Elderly people that are not well, not well in certain respects, are really a very dangerous group. We have to watch them."

But Fauci warned that Trump's optimism could be overstated.

"Younger people should be concerned for two reasons. You are not immune or safe from getting seriously ill," he told CNN. "Even though when you look at the total numbers, it's overwhelmingly weighted towards the elderly and those with underlying conditions. But the virus isn't a mathematical formula. There are going to be people who are young who are going to wind up getting seriously ill, so protect yourself."

Fauci added that young people who don't feel sick could still spread it "to a person who would bring it to a person that would bring it to your grandfather, your grandmother or your elderly relative."

Fox News hosts and Republican lawmakers have echoed Trump in trying to downplay the threat posed by COVID-19. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., urged people to go to bars and restaurants in an appearance on Fox News Sunday despite large cities shuttering establishments.

"There's a lot of concerns with the economy here because people are scared to go out," Nunes said. "But I will just say one of the things you can do if you're healthy — you and your family — it's a great time to just go out. Go to a local restaurant . . . Let's not hurt the working people in this country that are relying on wages and tips to keep their small business going."

The advice came after the CDC urged Americans to avoid crowded areas and stay home as much as possible.

Fauci told CNN that he would "like to see a dramatic diminution of the personal interaction that we see in restaurants and in bars." He told NBC News that he would favor a nationwide shutdown, similar to the kind that Italy, Spain and France have already instituted.

"You know, I would prefer as much as we possibly could. I think we should really be overly aggressive and get criticized for overreacting," he said. "Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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