Who’s Afraid of COVID?

November 10, 2021

How COVID anxiety breaks down among North Carolina voters


  • Majorities of all voter categories still report concern about COVID infection.
  • Partisanship and ideology are powerful, but not determinative, influencers of COVID concern; demographic factors are not
  • Findings align with earlier polling research showing solid majority support for COVID precautionary measures (ex. masks)

Eighteen months since the pandemic was officially declared, much of American politics continues to revolve around COVID and its resulting conditions. Many people have readjusted expectations around a “return to normal,” in the sense of things being exactly as they were pre-pandemic. Many of us wish that were possible, but it is not. Instead, both concern for, and actual illness from, COVID-19 is still very widespread, affecting everything from schools to the labor market, housing and even the global supply chain.

In the latest Carolina Forward polling series, we conducted a deep-dive into this concern about COVID to get a clearer understanding of what groups it impacts most. We asked a simple question: How concerned are you about you or your loved ones contracting COVID-19?  What we found is that concern for infection is broadly shared and very deep, and that media-led narratives about who is still “taking COVID seriously” – and who is not – are deeply misleading.

Concern about COVID infection is easy to stereotype. The news media has dedicated generous coverage to those who loudly reject precautionary measures like masks, or even deny basic facts about the disease itself. Those people certainly exist, but we find that they are a small minority overall. On the whole, voters are still highly sensitive to the risk of themselves or their loved ones contracting COVID.

Reminder: Carolina Forward polls registered voters only, not all residents. Our polls are weighted to reflect the actual voter universe. Read more about our poll sampling here.

Partisanship, Ideology, and “Long COVID”

The dominant narrative of COVID has been the same old deep rut of American political polarization: liberals versus conservatives. We all know the caricature: Trump-loving conservatives who don’t care a hoot about COVID (and don’t completely believe it’s real), versus Biden-voting liberals who are nervously lining up for booster shots and still practicing questionably necessary social distancing outside. To be sure, both of these groups exist. But they’re far from representative.

And sure enough, Trump/Biden voter preference and partisan affiliation were some of the most powerful factors affecting COVID concern:

The first thing to note about these responses is that concern about COVID is still extremely widespread. A majority of Trump voters are still concerned – 1 in 5 are “very” concerned. Democrats and Biden voters are much more uniform in their level of concern, while Republicans, Independents and the public at large shows a much wider range of variability. 3 in 4 voters overall are still “very” or “somewhat” concerned.

Another way of looking at this is that a person picked at random who is completely unconcerned about COVID is very likely to be a Trump supporter and/or Republican. Yet the opposite is not true: an average Trump voter, Republican or unaffiliated voter is more likely to be concerned about COVID than not. A voter at random is 60% more likely to be “very concerned” about COVID than “not at all.”

Similar to partisanship, concern about COVID tracks closely with political ideology – as well as with exposure to the disease itself. Regardless of self-described political ideology, a clear majority of all respondents expressed concern for COVID infection. While conservatives were more than twice as likely to be unconcerned (see graph below), a majority still indicated that they were.

We asked respondents if they, or someone they knew, were suffering from either COVID itself or the lingering symptoms known as “long COVID.” 26% of all respondents said “Yes.” (Note: this would indicate that 26% of all voters know someone impacted by COVID/long COVID, or even are themselves!) This group is represented in the chart below under the grouping “Long COVID,” while the 75% who were not suffering from COVID/long COVID are in the grouping “No COVID:”

It is unsurprising that among those in the “Long COVID” group, the overall level and intensity of concern is much higher than among the general population. People who’ve experienced COVID are very keen not to repeat it.

Demographics and Education

While partisanship and ideology were the most significant variables for predicting COVID concern, we also uncovered notable differences in demographic factors and educational attainment. These effects were clear, but somewhat smaller.

Large majorities of both men and women, as well as white and Black respondents, are all concerned about COVID. But relative intensity of concern was much higher among women and Black respondents than it was for whites and men:

Note that Black voters are almost twice as “very concerned” about COVID than whites, and women are 15 points more so than men. This likely reflects the extremely well-documented racial disparities of COVID deaths. Black and Hispanic COVID victims make up a disproportionate number of cases and deaths from the illness. The male/female ratio is likely explained by some old-fashioned machismo.

Unsurprisingly, concern for COVID increases with age. Less than half as many respondents over 65 reported “no concern” as did those 18-45. Concern also increased with higher educational attainment, with four-year degree holders (“4-year” in the graph below) also almost half as likely to be unconcerned than those with high school degrees and less (“HS/less”):

Again, it bears mentioning that pluralities of all groups but one nevertheless reported they were “very concerned” about COVID. Even in the 18-45 age group, the “not concerned” number was only about a third.

Surprising Null Effects

Two voter breakouts surprised us by showing no significant differences in level of COVID concern. These were “type of area” (urban, suburban or rural) and the presence of children in K-12 school in the household. We registered very little differences in levels of concern across these dimensions:

Theoretically, the “No Kids” bucket is likely to include many more older voters, whose level of COVID concern is generally higher. The “Urban” category is likely to include disproportionately more Black voters whose concern is also higher. These effects may help explain the varying levels of concern.


As 2021’s surge of COVID hospitalizations fueled by the Delta variant subsides, there are glimmers of light in the near future. Vaccination for younger children is now here: the FDA has granted emergency approval for COVID vaccinations to children 5 and up within weeks, and those for even younger children are following closely behind. With safeguards for young children and COVID caseloads overall dropping, the conditions for greater safety are brightening.

Yet COVID is unlikely to ever truly be “over.” According to the North Carolina DHHS, full vaccination rates in North Carolina now hover at a little over half of the total population (versus 90% of the population 65 years and older). Most observers agree that adults who have not gotten vaccinated at this point are unlikely to do so. The United States seems very unlikely to achieve the levels of vaccination needed for “herd immunity” to effectively eradicate the disease. With roughly a third of North Carolina adults still unvaccinated, the COVID virus still has a significant reservoir of victims to infect, re-infect and mutate in. This means that we are likely to see at least a low level of ambient infection for the long term – and, just as likely, periodic spikes in infections and hospitalizations due to new mutated strains.


Public attitudes have shifted due to COVID. Evidence demonstrates that clear majorities of voters support sensible precautionary measures, like school mask requirements and adding COVID vaccines to the list of mandatory immunizations in schools and healthcare settings. Yet as caseloads drop and vaccines become very widespread, public COVID-weariness is obvious. As the risk to public health drops, it may be reasonable for policymakers in areas where cases are low to ratchet back precautionary measures like public mask ordinances – as, indeed, some are doing. It is critical for responsible leaders to have this type of policy flexibility to meet their community needs.

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