On Coronavirus, Americans Still Trust the Experts

Credit…Pool photo by Sarah Silbiger

For months, President Trump has been contradicting his public health advisers over the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Over that same time, public health messages about the virus have been shifting. Advice that masks weren’t necessary changed to advice to wear masks. Guidance against mass gatherings was softened in the face of a recent wave of political protests.

Social media fights and news coverage have tended to focus on the maskless-and-angry; on large, risky public gatherings; and on harassment of public health officials. But a New York Times/Siena College survey shows a large majority of American registered voters quietly trust the advice of medical experts.

“I think there’s too much pessimism about American trust in science,” said Elizabeth Suhay, an associate professor of government at American University.

The poll shows that large majorities across the partisan divide trust medical scientists and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though Democrats are more trusting than Republicans over all. The levels are similar to those found in public opinion surveys earlier in the pandemic, and in the years before it, suggesting that the politicization of the coronavirus response has not demolished the credibility of science.

In the Times survey, 84 percent of voters said they trusted medical scientists to provide reliable information about the virus, with 90 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans trusting the experts. Overall trust in the C.D.C. was 77 percent — 71 percent among Republicans and 83 percent among Democrats.

Share of voters who trust each source for accurate information about the coronavirus



Medical scientists

Centers for Disease Control

Dr. Anthony Fauci

National news media

Donald Trump



Medical scientists

Centers for Disease Control

Dr. Anthony Fauci

National news media

Donald Trump



The C.D.C.

Dr. Anthony



news media



Based on a New York Times/Siena College poll of 1,337 registered voters from June 17 to June 22. Questions shown were asked of half of respondents. Those who did not identify with a major party are not shown.

Jonathan Ferguson, a real estate agent in Central Michigan and self-described conservative, says he has conservative friends who have resisted public health measures as infringements of their rights. But he has largely supported the actions of his governor, Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who imposed control measures over the objections of the president.

“When you have something that is so out of the box — a new global pandemic — it’s kind of like, Let’s get ahold of this and see where we are at,” said Mr. Ferguson, 39. “Our rights aren’t going anywhere.”

Even as trust in government and many professionals has been declining for decades, Americans’ trust in medical experts has tended to remain high. Gallup has shown consistently high rankings for nurses, doctors and pharmacists on measures of “honesty and ethics.”

The Pew Research Center, which has been studying trust in scientists since 2016, has seen consistently high scores for medical experts. Its most recent study, from May, showed 89 percent of Americans were confident that medical experts were acting “in the public interest.”

“We’re looking at a long-term decline in trust in institutions, including elected officials particularly, as well as the media,” said Cary Funk, who has led the Pew team. “This stands in contrast to that.”

But as people have chafed under the constraints of stay-at-home orders, and as coronavirus case numbers have started rising again, that stated trust in experts may face a new test. Some political scientists worry that, given the political overtones to the virus response and months of confusing or conflicting advice from experts, it may be hard to mobilize the public to follow public health guidelines in the way they did in the early months of the outbreak.

Evidence shows that trust is a good predictor of behavior — people who trust medical experts are more likely to heed their advice. That helps explain the widespread compliance with advice to shut down businesses and stay home, and with other policies devised to prevent the spread of coronavirus this spring.

But research also shows two key factors tend to dilute trust in public health: political polarization and mixed messages. Both are present in this crisis. Sarah Gollust, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota who studies the communication of health policy, worries the current levels of public trust may begin to erode. “The trends started out bad and are remaining bad,” she said.

The expert response to the disease has shifted as scientists have been learning about best practices in real time. Advice has changed on the value of masks, on whether asymptomatic patients can spread the disease, and whether the disease can easily spread via surfaces. Such confusing messages can cause people to throw up their hands and ignore any advice.

Jimmy Ballard, who works as a contractor and sells fireworks just outside Wichita, Kan., said he became skeptical of government health officials when they started discouraging people from wearing face coverings in February, and he has long been wary of the television news media. As a former E.M.T., wearing a mask to prevent disease transmission seemed obvious to him. Mr. Ballard, a registered Republican, plans to vote for the president’s re-election.

“I think they were trying to prevent a shortage for health care workers — and if that’d be the case, then just come out and say it,” said Mr. Ballard, 54. “Once you lie to me, I know you’re a liar. It’s pretty simple: Once bitten, twice shy.” He said, though, that he does trust his own doctor.

The pandemic has also been politicized almost from the beginning. President Trump has urged the use of unproven treatments, a faster reopening of businesses, and less reliance on testing. There are some clear links between his behavior and the behavior of partisans. His calls for the widespread use of an unproven malaria treatment drove up prescriptions for the drug. His disdain for masks appears reflected in comparatively lower rates of mask use among Republicans — though a majority of Republicans in the Times survey said they wear a mask at least some of the time.

Pew research has shown that people who rely on the White House for information on the virus tend to think the disease and pandemic are less dangerous than people who get their news from the national or local news media.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 24, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

In May, more than 1,200 public health professionals signed an open letter supporting participation in large public protests in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, an apparent reversal of earlier calls to avoid such mass gatherings.

In the face of those headwinds, the high levels of trust in scientists are remarkable. “I haven’t seen much evidence that trust in scientists or trust in the scientific community has eroded,” said Matt Motta, an assistant professor of political science at Oklahoma State University, who studies the intersection of politics and science. But he said he was still concerned about the future, particularly if a vaccine is approved, which would require widespread adoption to protect a community.

The Times survey shows some evidence that the politics of coronavirus could be having an effect. Even though people say they trust medical scientists in general, their trust of Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is now lower — and more partisan. Only 51 percent of Republicans trust him, while 81 percent of Democrats do.

And, consistent with other surveys, trust in the news media is low, especially among Republicans. Only 7 percent of Republicans say they trust the national news media to provide accurate information about the virus. That could be a problem, since far more Americans are learning about the pandemic from news reports than from their personal doctor or the C.D.C. website.

Whether public trust in the authorities endures may be increasingly important in the months ahead, if conditions continue to worsen in states like Texas and Arizona, or if a vaccine becomes ready for the public.

Mollyann Brodie, an executive vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, who has conducted several surveys measuring coronavirus responses, said she was struck by the broad unanimity and public compliance reflected by the early surveys. “We were having a shared experience, and people all were doing it — these were numbers I have never seen in my survey work.” She said, “My fear is that as this politicization of information continues, as experts are less clear about exactly what to tell people and less consistent in the message, that that shared experience is starting to melt away.”

Sabrina Tavernise contributed reporting.

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