Sacramento-area residents have less faith in their local, state and federal governments than they did at the start of the pandemic, according to a community survey from CapRadio and nonprofit Valley Vision. Experts worry that waning trust and “COVID fatigue” from months of lockdown will make people less likely to follow public health guidance going forward.
The poll, which surveyed people from eight Northern California counties, was conducted in May and then September. In the spring, 58% of survey takers considered the federal government’s response to the pandemic “very poor/inadequate.” In the fall that figure increased to 63%.
The latest survey shows 47% of respondents feel the state’s response is “very poor/inadequate” and 40% feel that way about their local government.
“There's a tremendous amount of fatigue and that's translating to a loss of goodwill,” said Evan Schmidt, CEO of Valley Vision.
Loss Of Faith
Tanya Holland, a psychologist who lives in North Natomas, says she’s recently started turning to research universities instead of government officials as a source of information about the pandemic, because she finds the messaging coming from the federal level confusing.
“I used to trust the CDC, but they’re having some difficulty navigating the Trump administration,” she said. “So I’m not really sure there would be a national entity I would listen to.”
Other survey respondents shared similar sentiments about political turmoil on the federal level skewing public health guidance.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, I expected the government to give me direct and honest information,” said Mark Sweet, of Orangevale. “The more I heard, the more I realized that I could not count on that for guidance or to know what I should be doing day to day, which obviously is very stressful.”
Sweet said he does trust information coming from the state of California, and tunes in daily to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 briefings.
Joe Doane, an Elk Grove resident who took the survey, said he worries Sacramento County officials aren’t adequately conveying the seriousness of the pandemic, and that economic concerns may be influencing health guidance.
“To me, a pretty high level of caution seems merited, but not everyone shares that opinion,” he said. “The county’s of course got to make some compromises. Governor Newsom has, too.”
A National Trend
The CapRadio/Valley Vision survey results mirror what’s occurring nationally. A Northwestern University study out last month found public trust in state government, Congress and the White House all saw double-digit declines of between 12 and 13 points in trust since the spring. About 68% of Americans trust their state governments, 42% trust Congress and 46% trust the White House according to their most recent poll numbers.
Beth Redbird, an assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern, says there’s a link between people’s views on the federal government and their adherence to public health messaging.
“If you trust what you’re hearing primarily from the White House, you’re the least likely group to engage in public health and social distancing in behaviors,” she said. “But if you’re not trusting what you hear at the federal level, you’re more likely to be engaged in social distancing, wearing masks.”
She says the exception to that rule is that people who’ve lost someone to COVID-19 or know someone who has become very sick are likely to follow health guidelines, regardless of their political views.
There’s also a divide in whether people believe the pandemic is getting better or worse. A September poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation — a nonpartisan health care research organization — showed 58% of democrats feel the worst of COVID-19 is yet to come, while only 14% of Republicans feel that way. More than half of Republicans feel the worst is behind us, the poll found.
Liz Hamel, director of public opinion and survey research for the foundation, says neutral experts such as county health department directors and health care providers should be able to get through to people of all political affiliations.
“There's a role for people's individual physicians and nurses and other more locally trusted sources to help get the right information out,” she said. “I think that's really important when you see so much confusion and and misinformation at the national level.”
Opinions About Vaccines
The way people view their local and federal officials could affect how likely they are to get a COVID-19 vaccine when and if it becomes available.
The Northwestern University survey found people who said they trusted President Donald Trump had the lowest intention of seeking a COVID-19 vaccination, but those who expressed trust in Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, largely said they would vaccinate.
There are also differences between racial groups when it comes to opinions about vaccines. In a recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California, 70% of Asian Americans, 62% of whites, and 54% of Latinos said they would definitely or probably get a vaccine if available today. Only 29% of African Americans said the same.
African Americans in California have been among the hardest hit when it comes to COVID-19 death rates. They’re at additional risk due to high rates of diabetes, obesity and other chronic conditions that make people less likely to survive the virus.
Redbird, the Northwestern University professor, says people of color were less inclined than white people to trust the government to begin with, but federal messaging has made it worse.
At several points in United States history, African Americans were used for unethical medical experiments to which they did not give full consent, such as the Tuskegee syphilis study. Now, some are worried that they’ll become test subjects when a COVID-19 vaccine arrives.
The Northwestern survey showed there are two primary groups of people who are hesitant about a COVID-19 vaccine — those who have long standing opposition to all vaccines, and those who began expressing concerns more recently. She says that second group could still be swayed either way.
“If a vaccine is produced right before election and its messaging indicates that there's some political motivation behind it, I would expect that group to continue to be very skeptical,” she said. “But if the vaccine is produced in late January after an inauguration and after the close of the election and there's transparency in the approval process, then I would expect trust to return.”
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