Most Americans Aren’t Paying Attention To The Monkeypox Outbreak

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

U.S. health officials declared monkeypox a public health emergency on Thursday, a move that frees up additional resources for vaccines and other treatments to help control the virus’s outbreak. The federal announcement comes just days after California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker both declared public health emergencies in their respective states.

A number of states have reported an uptick in monkeypox cases. The virus — which was recently detected in the U.S. in mid-May but came to the country at least once before, in 2003 — has led to mild outbreaks across the U.S., with areas like New York, Washington, D.C., and Florida bearing some of the highest case rates by population. But according to recent polling, a majority of Americans aren’t paying close attention to the disease and aren’t that concerned about the outbreaks.

Per a May survey from CivicScience, 36 percent of U.S. adults said they were “somewhat concerned” with the spread of monkeypox in the country, versus 45 percent who were “not at all concerned.” Moreover, the percentage of Americans who told CivicScience that they were not at all worried about being in public places has significantly increased this year, from 29 percent in early January to 41 percent in late May.

The lack of concern could be, in part, because a majority of Americans aren’t paying particular attention to news regarding the outbreak. A May survey from YouGov/The Economist, for instance, found that only 11 percent of respondents were following updates regarding monkeypox very closely. Thirty-three percent said they were paying attention to a certain extent, but the bulk of Americans (56 percent) said they weren’t following the news very closely — if at all. Those numbers haven’t increased significantly either, despite an uptick in cases during the summer. A July poll from The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that just 19 percent of Americans were concerned about getting monkeypox over the next several months. 

It’s possible that worries regarding the virus could change following the federal government’s latest announcement. But there’s still a lot we don’t know about the outbreak, and that lack of knowledge among experts could also be a reason why Americans seem largely unaware of how contagious the virus is and whether there’s a vaccine available. In July, just before New York’s Department of Health declared monkeypox an imminent threat to public health, the same Annenberg Public Policy Center poll found that nearly half (48 percent) of Americans were unsure whether monkeypox was more contagious than COVID-19 (it’s not). Another 66 percent of respondents said they either didn’t know or didn’t believe there was a monkeypox vaccine (there is).

Concern about the virus might also be low because there’s a stigma associated with it. So far, the outbreak appears to mostly affect gay and bisexual men. On the one hand, this means public health systems have been able to target their messaging to the communities that appear most at risk. But that also carries the risk of villainizing these populations similar to how Asian Americans were targeted at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s also an ongoing effort to change the name of the virus amid criticism that its current moniker is discriminatory and stigmatizing and that it unfairly associates transmission of the disease with Central and West Africa, despite the current international outbreak having no central connections to those regions.

Moreover, it’s dangerous for Americans to presume that monkeypox poses a threat only to men who have sex with men. To be sure, it is not an airborne virus and is not as easy to contract as, say, COVID-19. (It also cannot be easily passed through casual skin contact, is not as deadly COVID-19 and doesn’t usually lead to hospitalization.) But that doesn’t mean other populations aren’t at risk of contracting it or that monkeypox can’t eventually escalate into another pandemic given that the virus has seemingly become more transmissible this go-around.

Unfortunately, at least for now, there’s just not enough data to know how bad the monkeypox outbreak might get. It’s why public health officials are asking everyone to remain vigilant while President Biden’s administration ramps up measures to combat it at the state and federal level. Public health officials are optimistic that the viral illness is not like COVID-19, but they are still advising everyone to exercise caution in situations where one can’t maintain a sense of personal space. Americans may be currently taking a lax attitude toward monkeypox, but in reality, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the disease.

Other polling bites

  • Only about one-quarter of Americans report being “very” (8 percent) or “somewhat” concerned (18 percent) that President Biden’s recent COVID-19 diagnosis could inhibit the government from performing its duties, according to a YouGov poll conducted July 23-26. That said, many Americans are broadly concerned that Biden’s age and health have adversely affected his capacity to perform presidential duties: Forty-two percent said these factors severely limited his ability to fulfill his role, while adults 65 and older (Biden’s own demographic) were the most likely of any age group (50 percent) to agree.
  • A majority of Americans (59 percent) don’t know the definition of “carbon-neutral,” per a July 26 survey from Morning Consult. Thirty percent said they weren’t sure, while 29 percent incorrectly identified “carbon-neutral” from a list of three choices. Interestingly, that number is very similar for self-identified environmentalists: Twenty-four percent said they didn’t know, and 32 percent gave a wrong answer.
  • Adults 65 and older are almost twice as likely (51 percent) as adults under 30 (27 percent) to write by hand every day, according to an Aug. 3 YouGov survey. It’s a habit that varies by race, too: Forty-six percent of white Americans reported handwriting daily, compared to 33 percent of Black Americans and 34 percent of Hispanic Americans.
  • Younger Americans are less likely than older Americans to have read books as children, per a July 19-22 YouGov survey. Seventy-nine percent of Americans under the age of 30 reported reading while growing up, compared with 95 percent of adults 65 and older. Moreover, one-third of Americans said they’ve read one or zero books in the last year, while about another third estimated they read between two and five. But 12 percent reported reading more than 20 … talk about being fully booked!

Biden approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 39.2 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 55.7 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -16.5 points). At this time last week, 39.3 percent approved and 55.7 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -16.4 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 39.2 percent and a disapproval rating of 55.9 percent, for a net approval rating of -16.7 points.

Generic ballot 

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Republicans and Democrats are roughly tied, 44.2 percent to 44.2 percent. A week ago, Republicans led Democrats by 0.2 points (44.1 percent to 43.9 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Republicans by 2.0 points (42.8 percent to 44.8 percent).

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