On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that fully vaccinated Americans are so unlikely to transmit COVID-19 or fall ill from the virus that they no longer need to wear masks in most indoor situations.
According to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll, the CDC’s surprise shift could finally signal the beginning of the end of masking in the U.S. — while also ushering in a new era defined by growing divisions between vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans.
The survey of 1,561 U.S. adults, which was conducted from May 11 to 13, found that in the week immediately prior to Thursday’s announcement, nearly two-thirds of Americans were still saying they wore a mask outside in public “always” (39 percent) or “most of the time” (24 percent) — and the numbers among vaccinated Americans were even higher, at 42 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
Yet when Americans who continue to cover their faces all or most of the time were asked what it would take for them to leave their masks at home, far more (39 percent) chose this answer than any of the others: “I’m waiting until the CDC says we can stop wearing masks.”
Now that moment has arrived, and frequent mask wearers say it is significantly more likely than any other milestone — such as “waiting until more people in my community are fully vaccinated” (25 percent) or “waiting until there are no COVID-19 cases in my community” (21 percent) — to convince them to lower their face coverings. A full 45 percent of Democrats who wear masks all or most of the time, for instance, said they would stop whenever the CDC gave them permission to do so.
At the same time, however, it’s important to remember who was covered by the new CDC guidance: fully vaccinated Americans. Unvaccinated Americans, according to the CDC, should still mask up in public to protect themselves and others from COVID-19.
This sort of distinction between vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans is set to define the next phase of the U.S. pandemic. About 59 percent of U.S. adults have now received at least one vaccine dose, according to the CDC. But only another 5 percent say they plan to get a shot “as soon as it is available to me.” The rest have either said for months that they want to “wait and see what happens to others before deciding” (9 percent); that they’re not sure (9 percent); or that they will “never” get vaccinated (20 percent).
The U.S., in other words, is running out of adults who are eager to get a jab — and as a result the country as a whole is not likely to reach the 75 to 90 percent vaccination threshold that experts say is required for the kind of lasting population-wide protection known as “herd immunity.”
In the absence of herd immunity, the risks and rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans are already starting to diverge, as Thursday’s CDC announcement demonstrates. The new Yahoo News/YouGov survey suggests that differing views on such changes could drive these groups even farther apart.
Overall, Americans are increasingly optimistic about the pandemic. A full 54 percent now say the worst is behind us; just 16 percent fear the worst is yet to come. Fewer Americans (54 percent) say they are either very (20 percent) or somewhat (34 percent) worried about COVID-19 than at any point since the pandemic began.
Before the CDC announcement, frequent mask usage had already fallen 15 percentage points since late March. The fraction of Americans who say they feel comfortable gathering indoors with vaccinated people (57 percent), eating indoors at a bar or restaurant (48 percent) or hugging vaccinated people without masks (47 percent) has continued to climb.
Yet these encouraging trends conceal emerging divisions between vaccinated and unvaccinated Americans over how best to move forward. While significant numbers of those who’ve gotten at least one shot say they’re less worried about getting COVID-19 (49 percent) or giving it to others (39 percent), vaccinated Americans remain far more cautious and concerned about the virus than Americans who say they’ll never get vaccinated.
To wit: A full 59 percent of anti-vaxxers say most Americans are “overreacting to the actual risks” of COVID-19 — but just 12 percent of vaccinated Americans say the same.
The upshot is that there’s a growing desire among vaccinated Americans to be insulated from the perceived risks posed by their unvaccinated peers — a desire those unvaccinated peers do not share. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of vaccinated Americans, for instance, say they would want to know people’s vaccination status before socializing with them; half (50 percent) say they would go so far as to ask about vaccination status before socializing; and 61 percent say they would feel comfortable socializing with unvaccinated people only “under certain conditions (outdoors, masks, etc.).”
Likewise, 81 percent of vaccinated Americans want their unvaccinated peers to continue wearing masks indoors, and 62 percent want them to keep covering their faces outdoors, too. (Majorities of Americans — 62 percent and 53 percent, respectively — agree.) Asked whether unvaccinated Americans should “be allowed to do all the same things as vaccinated Americans,” far more of those who’ve gotten at least one shot say no (54 percent) than yes (29 percent).
Needless to say, anti-vaxxers disagree with that last statement (by an 84 to 9 percent margin). So does the public at large (though by a much closer margin of 45 to 38 percent). Yet vaccinated Americans vastly outnumber those who say they’ll never get vaccinated, and it’s entirely possible that businesses and institutions will increasingly cater to their desire for peace of mind in public settings.
It’s a desire that runs deep. A full 59 percent of vaccinated Americans say they want businesses to require proof of vaccination from customers, and even more say the government should require “vaccine passports” to attend school (60 percent), attend a sporting event (61 percent) or fly on an airplane (71 percent). Similar numbers of vaccinated Americans want their own employers to require vaccination for in-person workers (65 percent) and public schools to require vaccination for returning students (73 percent).
It’s no surprise, then, that “private employers, restaurants and entertainment venues” are already “looking for ways to make those who are vaccinated feel like VIPs, both to protect workers and guests, and to possibly entice those not yet on board,” according to a recent report in the New York Times — or that “access and privilege among the vaccinated may rule for the near future, in public and private spaces.”
The Yahoo News/YouGov poll clearly shows that both anti-vaxxers and the wait-and-see crowd — a combined 29 percent of U.S. adults — oppose such privileges. Whether they entice any holdouts to get a jab, however, remains to be seen. Just 9 percent of unvaccinated Americans say the main reason they haven’t gone through with it yet is that they “don’t have easy access to vaccination”; just 3 percent say the main reason is that they “can’t get time off from work”; and just 7 percent say the main reason is that they “already had COVID-19.” Far more unvaccinated Americans, meanwhile, say they’re holding off because they “don’t trust the COVID-19 vaccines” (44 percent). Another 12 percent say they’re “not worried about getting the virus.”
As a consequence, only small numbers of unvaccinated Americans say they would be more likely to get a shot if they could get vaccinated at their doctor’s office (20 percent); if they get could vaccinated at their place of work (14 percent); if a nurse came to their house and offered to vaccinate them there (16 percent); if it meant they were no longer required to wear a mask in public (22 percent); if their employer required them to be vaccinated to return to the workplace (21 percent); if they received something for free (like a beer or a gift card) in exchange (16 percent); if they received $100 in exchange (24 percent); or if it gave them easier access to things like travel, sports, entertainment and restaurants (22 percent).
Even among those in wait-and-see mode, 30 percent or fewer say that any of these enticements would make them more likely to get vaccinated.
The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,561 U.S. adults interviewed online from May 11 to 13, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as well as 2020 presidential vote (or non-vote) and voter registration status. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. adults. The margin of error is approximately 2.6 percent.
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