Health and Healthcare Systems

How Americans' priorities have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic

Many Americans say that they take more health precautions in public.

Many Americans say that they take more health precautions in public. Image: Davyn Ben/Unsplash

Maddie Sharpe
Intern, Pew Research Center
Alison Spencer
Research Analyst, Pew Research Center
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  • The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many aspects of public life since the virus first emerged.
  • A new Pew Research Center survey asked Americans what rose and fell in importance to them over the course of the pandemic.
  • A quarter said keeping healthy became more important to them during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The coronavirus outbreak has transformed many aspects of public life since 2020, including how Americans work, go to school and attend religious services. More recently, restrictions on public activities in many places have been lifted, and Americans are increasingly more comfortable with returning to normal activities.

To gain insight into how Americans view the impact of COVID-19 in their lives, a recent Pew Research Center survey asked respondents to describe – in their own words – what rose and fell in importance to them during the pandemic. (A random subset of survey respondents described what has become more important to them and another random subset described what has become less important.)

For many Americans, the pandemic – which has taken more than a million lives in the United States alone – has brought a new sense of trade-offs between protecting one’s health and participating in social activities as part of daily life. Here are some of the key themes that emerged in Americans’ open-ended responses.

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What’s become more important

Many Americans – 26% of those who responded – say keeping healthy became more important to them during the COVID-19 outbreak, whether that involved following public health precautions or putting more emphasis on a healthy lifestyle.

Some described the precautions they took to maintain their health as newly important. One respondent said, “Keeping a safe distance from people in the stores and places I shop or eat. Make sure to wash my hands enough especially before eating.” Others framed this in more general terms, such as “staying healthy, exercising, eating right and watching out for my mental health.”

Roughly two-in-ten (21% of those who gave a response) talked about their renewed appreciation for social activities. Most in this group said participating in large gatherings and in-person visits with friends and family were more important to them now than before the outbreak. One person described their shift in appreciation this way: “Quality time with the people I love, attending large events whenever the opportunity presents itself.”

A smaller share (9% of those answering) referred to not going out and staying home – steps to prevent risk of infection – as more important priorities since the COVID-19 outbreak. One person described the change as “staying out of public places and crowded places.” Another said, “I stay at home more, avoid crowds and public spaces. I also shop earlier to avoid people, buy more in bulk so I don’t have to go out as often.”

Some Americans place more value on protecting their health – but also socializing – since COVID-19 began
How the pandemic has changed Americans' priorities. Image: Pew Research Center

Center surveys have shown widespread changes in Americans’ work lives during the pandemic. Some open-ended responses also spoke to people’s reevaluation of broader life priorities, especially in connection with a decreased focus on work life or being in the office.

One-in-ten of those responding described having more appreciation for life and a comparatively lower priority on work life today. One survey respondent summed up their new priorities this way: “When I worked from home, I was able to be very efficient and finish work during my contract hours. Now that I am back to commuting and interacting with colleagues, that is more difficult to do, but I do not take home work tasks any longer. What gets done at work gets done, and everything else waits for the next business day. My family time is too valuable.”

Fewer respondents mentioned frustrations with advice from public health officials or an active rejection of efforts to protect themselves from coronavirus. Just 2% of those responding said this had become more important to them. (Another 1% made a general negative remark about public health officials.)

What’s become less important

Americans who were asked what has decreased in importance to them during the outbreak also frequently cited social interactions. About a third (35% of those responding to this question) said socializing and going out had decreased in priority to them.

As one person put it, “Being social in large crowds is less important now. It’s less important to go out.” Another said, “I am not going out as much to crowded areas and it’s not really my priority.” Other activities that Americans volunteered as less important to them personally included “traveling and vacations,” “going out for shopping” and “going to the movies.”

Social gatherings have become less important for some Americans since the coronavirus outbreak began
Graph comparing importance of certain activities post-pandemic for Americans. Image: Pew Research Center

Some respondents (9%) mentioned a devaluation of work when thinking about things that have become less important to them during the pandemic. This included people who said that their job or going to work in person had become less important. One respondent said, “It became less important for me to be in the office. I can handle the same responsibilities being remote.” Among the other things that Americans mentioned as less important to them: “Putting in long hours at work” and “being defined by [their] job.”

A small share of Americans (4% of those who responded) said that listening to public health officials had become less important to them. One respondent phrased it as having “lost all faith in the medical community, the CDC, FDA, etc.”


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Partisan differences over public health guidelines, social gatherings

Throughout the coronavirus outbreak, wide partisan differences have emerged over efforts to mitigate its effects. Partisan differences also appear in Americans’ open-ended survey responses to the Center’s recent survey, particularly when it comes to health guidelines and social gatherings.

Partisans differ over importance of health precautions, social gatherings since COVID-10 outbreak began
Partisan differences in support for COVID-19 measures. Image: Pew Research Center

Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic Party were about twice as likely as Republicans and Republican leaners (32% vs. 17%) to mention taking health precautions and following public health guidance or other efforts to improve health as being more important to them since the outbreak.

On the flip side, Democrats (45% of those responding) were also more likely than Republicans (22%) to talk about decreased importance of socializing in large gatherings or going out since the outbreak began.

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