May 5, 2020 - Health

Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index, Week 8: Second-guessing the death toll

Data: Ipsos/Axios survey, margin of error of ±3.2 percentage points; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Most Americans say they doubt the U.S. death count — but whether they think it's actually higher or lower depends on whether they're Democrats or Republicans, according to the latest installment of the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index.

Why it matters: This may be the most jarring evidence to date about just how deeply partisanship has infected our collective ability to trust institutional sources and agree on science and facts. Trust in government is abstract, but death counts are real.

  • People whose primary news source is the Fox News channel are most likely to say that U.S. deaths attributed to coronavirus are inflated.

Week 8 of our national weekly survey also finds trust in the federal government slipping to new lows, across party lines.

  • Trust in state governments dropped most in Florida, Georgia and Texas — where governors pushed fast re-openings — and held highest in California, New York and New Jersey, where governors resisted.

What they're saying: "How people are actually processing information and assigning credibility to it is 100% partisan," said Cliff Young, president of Ipsos U.S. Public Affairs.

By the numbers: New findings give us a glimpse into how Americans are thinking about the longer-term impacts of the virus on summer vacations, the next school year and people in need.

  • 47% say they've cancelled summer plans, such as camp or a vacation rental.
  • 58% say they're concerned that schools won't reopen in the fall.
  • 63% say they're concerned about food shortages in the next month.
  • One in five people say they've donated in the last month to charities providing food to those in need; one in 10 donated to charities helping hospitals or health workers.

Between the lines: At the same time, there's some softening around how much risk Americans are attaching to various activities and how much risk they're willing to take.

  • 26% said they visited friends or relatives in the last week, an increase for the second week in a row.
  • Social distancing may break down first not among people rushing back to stores or the office, but those deciding to meet relatives and friends again.
  • "Self-quarantining and social distancing is still in place, but we're getting into full-blown spring and people are beginning to poke their heads out," Young said.

When it comes to the death toll, roughly one in three Americans across party lines say the numbers being attributed to the virus are probably about right. Such partisan agreement evaporates when it comes to the remaining two thirds.

  • A majority of Democrats, around half of independents and one in four Republicans say they think virus-related deaths are being undercounted.
  • Republicans lead the pack among those who instead think the deaths are being over-reported, while fewer than one in 10 Democrats agrees.
  • The question was pegged to a reported 61,000 deaths as of April 30. By Monday, more than 68,000 deaths had been reported in the U.S. and a quarter million around the world.

Reality check: The available data suggests those who believe we're undercounting coronavirus deaths may be right, says Axios health care editor Sam Baker.

  • Many deaths aren't officially attributed to the coronavirus because not enough people have been tested for the virus. Preliminary evidence suggests it has in fact killed thousands more people than official records indicate.
  • Several hard-hit states have seen about 50% more deaths than normal over the past few weeks, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, and New York City's death rate is about three times higher than normal, per The New York Times.

Be smart: This disagreement over deaths also is playing out in people's declining trust in the federal government to look out for their best interests.

  • Overall trust declined from 53% to 38% from Week 2 through this week.
  • Democrats' trust fell from 42% to 25%.
  • Republicans' trust fell from 74% to 61%.
  • Independents' trust fell to 47% to 33%.
  • 43% of Hispanics, 39% of whites and 28% of African-Americans in the survey say they trust the federal government.

Methodology: This Axios/Ipsos Poll was conducted May 1-4 by Ipsos' KnowledgePanel®. This poll is based on a nationally representative probability sample of 1,012 general population adults age 18 or older.

  • The margin of sampling error is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, for results based on the entire sample of adults.

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