A majority of American voters believe COVID-19 public health measures infringed on personal freedoms, according to a new Deseret News poll.

The poll also found that a significant plurality of registered voters judge pandemic-related restrictions to have had an overall negative impact on their life.

This gloomy view reflects missteps by institutions like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state governments as well as the general pain associated with natural disasters, according to public health insiders and outside analysts.

A fair accounting of the nation’s COVID-19 reaction is unlikely in today’s polarized environment, they said. But four years after being hit by a wave of impromptu pandemic policies, many Americans still look back on lockdowns, mandates and the organizations that recommended them with distrust — a fact that could impede future public health responses.

“We tend to be rejecting a lot of our traditional institutions and that will have a price because we’ll have to see all those lessons learned again,” said former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who served as Health and Human Services Secretary in the George W. Bush administration. “But,” he added, “that’s the way history teaches.”

How voters feel about COVID restrictions

A Deseret News/HarrisX poll, which was conducted among 1,010 U.S. registered voters between March 25-26, found that voters do not have a net positive perception of any COVID-19 closures or restrictions.

Half of respondents (49%) said closures of non-essential retail businesses, like restaurants and department stores, had some or a strong negative impact on them personally. One-fifth (20%) said it had some or a strong positive effect on their lives and 30% said it had no impact. Respondents felt similarly about stay-at-home orders, work office closures and having to wear masks.

A plurality of voters said school closures did not impact them personally, likely because only 30% of respondents had at least one child living at home. But among those who said they were personally impacted, 64% said it was negative.

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Dissatisfaction with pandemic polices was mostly uniform across race, education and income but diverged sharply between voters with different political affiliations. Self-identified Republicans were consistently more likely to have negative views of COVID-19 restrictions than Democrats by 20 to 30 percentage points, with independents hovering between the two.

The divide was clear on COVID-19 church closures. Over half (55%) of Republican voters said restricting access to places of worship had some or a negative impact on their life, compared to 26% of Democrats and 31% of independents.

Around half of Democrats and independents said church closures did not impact them personally. Less than one-third of Republicans felt the same way.

A majority (55%) of voters said government measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 infringed on personal freedoms. The percentage jumped to 73% among Republicans and fell to 39% among Democrats, with independents sitting at 53%.

The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percentage points.

Signs at Market Street Grill in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 13, 2020, inform customers that the restaurant is closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Why many voters look back on pandemic policy with distrust

It is no surprise voters have a generally negative recollection of the COVID-19 years, said Dr. Andrew Pavia, who leads the division of pediatric Infectious diseases at University of Utah Health and directs hospital epidemiology at Primary Children’s Medical Center.

“What I read from those poll numbers is really a recounting of the trauma that we all went through,” Pavia told the Deseret News.

During the pandemic, Pavia served as an adviser to the CDC and the Utah Department of Health on COVID-19. He is also a member of the National Institutes of Health COVID-19 treatment guidelines panel where he was the pediatric team lead.

“Were all of the decisions perfect? Of course not. Were most of them made in good faith with the best available data? I think so,” he said.

However, major mistakes that hurt peoples’ perception of public health agencies were made, Pavia said.

One example was an early effort by the CDC to preserve medical masks for health care workers. Instead of explaining that masks were likely helpful but that they were in short supply, CDC guidance came across as “We don’t think masks will protect people that much,” Pavia said. The CDC’s position on masks was later completely reversed to the bewilderment of many. As Pavia put it, “The message was botched.”

But the problems with COVID-19 policy ran much deeper than bad public relations or political malfeasance, according to Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, co-authors of “The Big Fail: What The Pandemic Revealed About Who America Protects and Who It Leaves Behind.”

“For any public health figure to say it was just the fault of politicians exploiting it is not to look in the mirror about their own mixed messaging. And for any politician to say, ‘I was just confused because public health was unclear’ is to avoid responsibility for their own flawed leadership,” said McLean, who works as a contributing editor for Vanity Fair magazine.

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For McLean, and for many Americans, it is easy to rattle off a list of “incoherent” pandemic guidelines coming from political or public health officials.

Whether it was California Gov. Gavin Newsom imposing harsh lockdowns on public schools while continuing to send his own children to private academies; states shutting off access to certain outdoor spaces despite evidence there was nowhere safer to be; or — what McLean sees as the most egregious — the continued insistence that healthy children were at risk from COVID-19 despite the opposite being true.

“It served to widen our divides and to cause people to lose trust in institutions instead of bringing us together and strengthening our trust in institutions. And I think that’s potentially quite, quite dangerous,” McLean said.

Nocera, a business journalist who has written for the Free Press, Fortune, New York Times and Bloomberg, gave political and public health leaders a pass for policies enacted during the spring panic of 2020. But by that fall many course corrections were obviously needed that never came.

“What’s particularly painful about this is that if you compare lockdown states with non-lockdown states, there’s virtually no difference,” Nocera said. “So, after all this — shutting things down, making people angry, forcing people to stay out of church — in the end, it didn’t even make any difference.”

The United States had one of the highest pandemic death tolls of any wealthy country — an outcome likely associated with high levels of obesity and low levels of full vaccination, according to a New York Times analysis. But California, which had some of the strictest and longest pandemic restrictions, had a significantly higher death rate than Florida, which had relatively fewer and shorter restrictions.

Lessons from America’s COVID-19 response

Nocera, a “left-leaning independent,” praised Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for making evidence-based decisions that took into account factors other than just the COVID-19 case count.

“As a general precept, Republican governors did a better job of saying, ‘COVID isn’t the only thing going on in our world,’” Nocera said. “The Democrats were much more attuned to the idea, ‘If public health tells us this, we have to do it, we can’t question it.’”

The most glaring inconsistency between what was said by public health officials and the facts on the ground, according to Nocera, had to do with vaccines. Figures like Anthony Fauci, former chief medical adviser to the president, and Rochelle Walensky, former director of the CDC, “wildly oversold the vaccines” by saying they would stop transmission of COVID-19 which turned out to be false and actually could not have been known from the vaccine testing process, Nocera said.

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But it may have been the way that false or questionable claims were used to restrict people’s freedom or quiet dissident voices that had the most lasting damage on the country, Nocera said.

“The next time there’s a health emergency, many fewer people are going to listen to, or believe, anything public health says, or the government says, because a lot of people, even people in blue states, who did everything they were supposed to do, feel like they were not told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” he said.

Server Brennan Feller prepares curbside pickup orders at Market Street Grill in Cottonwood Heights on Tuesday, April 28, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

According to a 2023 Harvard study, only one-third of U.S. adults had high levels of trust in the CDC. Trust in government sources for COVID-19 vaccine information fell throughout the pandemic, especially among Republicans, KFF polling found.

Pavia: Grace for public health officials

Pavia said striking the balance between “save the most lives and cause the least disruption,” all while trying to communicate uncertainty surrounding a novel virus, “is the hardest thing that anyone in public health ever does.”

Public health officials should be given grace for making human errors in their judgement or communication because without their knowledge, public health crises would be much worse, Pavia said.

“What we’ve seen among many people is sort of a wholesale discounting of expertise, and that’s really harmful because nobody knows the answers to everything but there are experts who come closer ... and while they may make mistakes, they still are probably the best positioned to give us the best advice,” he said.

While the usefulness of old models for new pandemics is limited, Pavia said increased preparation could have helped improve the country’s pandemic response. A pandemic preparedness playbook spearheaded by Leavitt during the Bush administration was dismantled “in the year leading up to the pandemic,” Pavia said.

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According to Leavitt, it is always difficult for public health experts to convey the importance of learning from past pandemics to be more prepared for the next one.

“I came to understand that no matter what you say in advance of a pandemic, it sounds alarmist. After a pandemic starts, no matter what you do, it’s inadequate,” Leavitt said. “And that proved out during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

One of the big takeaways from COVID-19, according to Pavia, is “we all have to be better at communicating the uncertainty and accepting that as we learn more things will change quickly.”

McLean agreed.

“One of the lessons I wish we would learn is that ‘Follow the science’ must be one of the dumbest things that has ever been said because science at its best is a way of asking a question,” she said. “I hope we can learn some open mindedness coming out of this, learn some flexibility, instead of becoming so dogmatic. And I hope that our leaders, maybe all of us, can learn to say, ‘I don’t know.’”