A new survey shows Santa Clara County residents are taking greater safety precautions related to COVID-19, which could be helping to reduce the number of new cases, according to county health data. The county now has a seven-day rolling average of 454 new cases per day compared to an all-time high of 1,479 about three weeks earlier.
The January survey, which was conducted for the county by consultants EMC Research, involved interviews with about 1,000 residents. The poll follows a baseline survey of the same residents from May 2020, with follow-up surveys conducted in June and September, in English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese.
The researchers also added focus groups and other more in-depth interviewing in highly impacted areas of the county to develop a deeper understanding of people's thinking. That qualitative research was largely done in Latino and Southeast Asian communities in their languages.
"We have been doing this research throughout the pandemic to better understand the community’s attitudes and understanding of the issues related to COVID-19," the county Public Health Department said in a statement.
The majority of respondents said they see the pandemic worsening, with long-term effects on children, the economy, mental health and obtaining basic necessities as their top concerns. Most people now said they plan to be vaccinated once the shot is available to them, an increase of 25% over the number of people willing to be inoculated in September, the study found.
Many people have a more sobering view of COVID-19 and its social and economic impacts, according to the survey. Residents are engaging in fewer activities, heeding shelter-in-place orders and wearing masks a little more frequently.
Overall optimism about the direction of the county has declined since the last survey in September, from 56% to 52%, the researchers found. COVID-19 has increased as a top-of-mind issue amid the winter surge, with 42% of people saying it is the most important problem in the county compared to 24% in September.
The January number represents the highest percentage of concern since May 2020, when 43% named the coronavirus as the top issue, according to the data.
When asked about their perception of the COVID-19 crisis, 53% said the situation is getting worse, while 32% said the circumstances are either getting better or they don't know. Just 15% said conditions are improving. Isolation has had a serious impact on people's mental health and overall outlook.
"Many sounded frustrated but resigned, and do not see things changing for the better even with vaccines available," the researchers said.
Here's a breakdown of the issues that the respondents ranked as most pressing:
Respondents rated problems on a scale from one (not at all concerned) to seven (extremely concerned). A whopping 81% said they are personally worried with the long-term social and academic impact of the pandemic on children and youth, with 53% of those respondents indicating that they were "extremely concerned."
Although 39% of parents thought their schools were not prepared to reopen safely, 50% said that, given the option, they would send their children back to campus for in-person instruction.
Distress over the state of the local economy was shared by 81% of survey takers, with 48% indicating extreme concern. Regarding employment, 45% indicated concern over becoming unemployed or not being able to find a job, compared with 39% who had little or no concern at all. Forty-one percent were worried about their ability to pay their mortgage or rent. Those concerned about an inability to afford necessities, such as food and gas, totaled 39%.
Mental health problems, isolation and anxiety over contracting or giving COVID-19 infection to someone close were also significant — and were on the rise compared to previous surveys. Half of respondents said their mental health was an issue. Isolation appears to have played a large part, with 67% saying they felt uneasy about not being able to see family or friends.
Of the 69% who worried about themselves or someone in their household becoming infected with COVID-19, 43% said they were extremely concerned. Fifty-nine percent feared unknowingly spreading the virus to someone else.
The surveyed residents also indicated a marked change in the behavior of the respondents from September to January. Asked about their activities in the last seven days, in September, 57% said they had gone to a store or shop other than a grocery store; in January, that number dropped to 41%.
In September, 51% of respondents spent time outdoors with people outside of their household, while 36% did the same in the January survey; 39% spent time indoors with people they don't live with in September, compared to 26% in January; 16% stayed overnight somewhere away from home in September, but by January that was down to 9%; 15% attended a social gathering of 10 people or more, but in January, just 5% did.
Related to dining, 32% dined at a restaurant in September. By the end of January, that number plummeted to 4%. The researchers didn't specify whether the new stay-at-home order announced by the state in December had been factored into the large percentage drop. The data also doesn't parse whether people purchased takeout or ordered deliveries, nor if winter weather contributed to the change.
The respondents were also asked how they perceive the safety of various activities. Most said the following are unsafe: going to a movie theater, 84%; being indoors with people outside of their household without masks, 85%; attending indoor gatherings of 10 or more people, 85%; dining inside at a restaurant, 79%; going to a church, synagogue, mosque or other place of worship, 75%; traveling on a plane, 75%; being with people outside without masks, 72%; going to school, 67%; going to a clothing store, 64%; dining outside at a restaurant, 52%; being with people inside with masks, 47%; and being with people outside with masks, 25%.
More that half of respondents — 55% — now say they always wear a mask when indoors with those outside their household, up from 47% in September; 13% said the question doesn't apply, which suggests they never spend time indoors with others, the researchers said. About 11% rarely or never wear a mask indoors.
Wearing masks outdoors is increasing. In the January survey, 59% said they always wear a mask outside compared to 41% in September. Most people felt that social activities are unsafe, but wearing a mask helps mitigate the risk.
The accessibility of COVID-19 testing continues to improve and a majority of those surveyed have now been tested at least once, they said.
When it comes to vaccinations, more than three-quarters of respondents indicated they will get vaccinated once they're eligible. In September, 52% said they would get vaccinated; in January, that number jumped to 77%. Latino and young people appear slightly more hesitant, however. Compared to whites (83%), East Asians (75%), Southeast Asians (85%) and Black, indigenous and people of color (72%), 68% of Latinos said they intend to be vaccinated. Among people 18-44 years old, males (74%) and females (75%) planned to be vaccinated compared to males (84%) and females (93%) who are ages 65 and older.
Most people think the vaccines are safe and effective. Seventy-two percent agreed vaccines were effective while 11% disagreed; 72% felt the vaccines are safe, while 14% disagreed; 61% considered the vaccines would produce only mild effects of a reaction, but 19% disagreed; and 26% perceived the vaccines would have dangerous side effects compared to 54% who disagreed.
There were 20% of respondents who didn't know how they felt about side effects, whether they were mild or dangerous, and 17% and 14% of people didn't know if the vaccines were effective or safe, respectively. The percentages of people who said they didn't know in this category were among the largest compared to other areas of the survey.
Only 51% felt the vaccines were being distributed fairly and just 32% felt the shots were being distributed as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
From qualitative data the researchers collected during interviews and focus groups, "We gained a vivid understanding of beliefs and attitudes that lead to vaccine hesitancy and the kind of misinformation circulating about vaccines. Many have come to believe that the risks from dangerous side effects are worse than the risks of getting sick from COVID-19. Misunderstandings seem to stem from too much information, rather than not enough, and not knowing what to believe," the researchers said.
The qualitative research "highlights the need for clear and consistent outreach about vaccines, helping residents understand they are safe, free, and will eventually be available to all," they concluded.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.