Updated May 12, 2020 - Health

Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index Week 9: Americans hate contact tracing

Data: Ipsos/Axios survey, margin of error of ±3.4 percentage points; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

In a best-case scenario, just half of Americans would participate in a voluntary coronavirus "contact tracing" program tracked with cell phones, according to the latest installment of the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index.

Why it matters: A strong contact tracing program — identifying people who have the virus and isolating those who have come into contact with them — is the key to letting other people get back to their lives, according to public health experts.

  • The findings underscore deep resistance to turning over sensitive health information, and mistrust about how it could be used.
  • The only way to get even half of Americans to participate would be for public health officials to run the program, not the White House or tech or phone companies.

What they're saying: "The whole concept of American democracy is about local control and civil liberties, individual liberties," said Cliff Young, president of Ipsos U.S. Public Affairs.

  • "At the end of the day, I think there will be an American solution to contact tracing," but if the survey results are any guide, "it's not going to be a centralized authority saying, 'And now we're going to have contact tracing.'"
  • These findings come as tech companies develop software to try to halt the spread, and public health officials train thousands to conduct the tracing.

The big picture: Even as the death toll rises and infections breach the White House firewall, Week 9 of our national survey also finds more people itching to return to work as they used to know it — and bending guidelines to see family and friends.

  • 64% say returning to their pre-coronavirus lives would be a large or moderate risk. Just 30% say that's worth the risk right now.
  • But four in 10 say they think returning to their normal place of employment would post only a small risk, or no risk.
  • 63% consider airplane travel or mass transit to be a large risk, down from 73% a month ago.
  • Nine in 10 say they're still practicing social distancing, but just 36% say they're self quarantining, down from a peak of 55% in Week 4.
  • 32% say they've visited family or friends in the past week, the highest share in seven weeks.

These shifts in behavior come even as growing shares of Americans know people in their own communities who have tested positive and the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. has topped 1.3 million, with roughly 80,000 deaths.

  • About a third know someone who has tested positive — and of those, nearly half say they know a person in their own community who has tested positive.
  • "People are getting antsy," Young said. "They know there's this risk, but ... people's mental health and social health are challenged and they're just feeling restless."
  • "You can only keep cooped up for so long."

Between the lines: Most don't see the virus as an immediate existential threat to themselves. This week, we asked whether people had prepared or updated their wills or living wills since the pandemic began. More than nine in 10 said no.

For contact tracing involving cell phone tracking, Democrats surveyed are more open than Republicans to the notion of opt-in reporting.

  • 68% of Democrats say they'd participate if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was in charge, compared with 58% of independents and 32% of Republicans.
  • Those numbers plunged if the federal government more broadly were in charge, but Democrats remained the most likely to participate — 39% compared with 34% of independents and 23% of Republicans.
  • That's despite the fact that Democrats are less trusting than others of the Trump administration to protect their families.
  • Men are slightly more likely than women to trust tech companies with the information.

Be smart: Some reporting initiatives may need to be mandatory or person-to-person to get high enough levels of participation to be worthwhile.

Methodology: This Axios/Ipsos Poll was conducted May 8-11 by Ipsos' KnowledgePanel®. This poll is based on a nationally representative probability sample of 980 general population adults age 18 or older.

  • The margin of sampling error is ±3.4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level, for results based on the entire sample of adults.

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