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On Covid, Americans can be stingy with their trust

The latest poll numbers paint a new picture about whom Americans trust about Covid-19. And on the whole, it's not the CDC.

WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic has brought more than 20 months of uncertainty. And through the mask mandates and vaccination debates, Americans have developed a complicated and somewhat surprising set of voices they trust about the virus, according to the latest NBC News poll.

The poll asked a simple question —"In general, do you trust what _____ has said about the coronavirus or not?" — and subbed in a series of possibilities into the blank space.

Through all the names and groups that were mentioned, one thing jumps out in the data: Americans seem more likely to trust people they know directly or people with whom they have direct contact. For instance, the group that ranked highest was "your employer."

Overall, nearly 6 in 10 employed Americans said they trusted what they heard about Covid from their employers.

And in a country where there are partisan divides over almost everything, there was at least some unanimity on this point. About 70 percent of Democrats said they trusted their employers, and 53 percent of Republicans said the same. Independents were a bit more suspicious, with only 40 percent saying they trusted their employers on Covid, but that was still far more than the 25 percent who said they did not trust them.

Parents, many of whom have struggled to balance life and child care during the pandemic, also trusted what their local schools said. More than half of all parents said they trusted their children's schools on the virus; the figure was 50 percent or more among Democrats and Republicans.

Contrast those numbers with the trust figures for the leading experts on the pandemic in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On the whole, 44 percent of those surveyed said they trusted the CDC on the virus, while 43 percent said they did not trust it.

And here the familiar partisan divide was apparent. Nearly 70 percent of Democrats said they trusted the CDC, while only 22 percent of Republicans said they did. Independents were in between, with 37 percent saying they trusted the CDC.

A number of factors could be driving the split. Democrats might see the CDC as an arm of the executive branch of government, which they control, while Republicans might see the reverse. And Republicans generally seem more skeptical of the dangers of Covid and may disapprove of the CDC's handling of the pandemic.

Aside from partisanship, however, the numbers paint a remarkable picture. On the whole, the public is more likely to trust the nonexperts who employ them and those who teach their children than they are to trust the government agency that is studying the virus.

Critics might note that the CDC's guidance has changed at times since March 2020, but some of that was bound to occur as the pandemic changed and scientists learned more about the virus. It may be that people are more likely to trust their employers or the local schools because they feel they are all in the same boat, trying to navigate unknown territory and sometimes unclear guidance. Regardless, the gap between trust in nonexpert and expert sources of information is significant.

The poll also reveals some notable differences of opinion about the two presidents who have dealt with the pandemic, Joe Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump.

The numbers for Biden follow a well-known pattern.

Overall, 37 percent of respondents said they trust what Biden has said about the virus. But the numbers shift through a partisan lens. A large majority of Democrats, 73 percent, say they trust what Biden has said. Among Republicans, only 8 percent trust him. The figure for independents is between those two figures but very much on the low end, with only 21 percent trusting the president.

The numbers are not out of line with typical appraisals of political leaders in either party, especially considering the struggles the country has had with Covid over the past year. Partisans back their sides, and independents are unhappy.

But when the question turns to Trump, there is a significant difference.

The total trust figure for Trump is quite low, at only 21 percent. And the Democratic number is predictably in the cellar, at 4 percent, while the figure for independents is not much higher, at 13 percent. However, the figure for GOP respondents is unexpected. Only 39 percent of Republicans say they trust what Trump has said about the virus.

To be fair, that is much higher than the proportion of Republicans who say they cannot trust what he has said, 25 percent, but it is still out of line with the broad support for Trump among Republicans when he was president.

And the low numbers are not just among Republicans. Even among those who say they voted for Trump in 2020, only 42 percent say they trust him on the virus. That is a fairly remarkable number, and it may be a revealing one, as well.

The pandemic has challenged the nation in many ways over the past 20 or so months, rattling the economy as well as the health care and education systems.

But areas of agreement in the poll, on trust of local sources and distrust of Trump, suggest something unusual recently: small slivers of bipartisan consensus on a serious issue. In the world of 2022 politics, that might be considered a positive sign.