A broad majority of U.S. adults are concerned about the recently identified omicron variant of the coronavirus and fear it will bring a new surge in Covid-19 cases, a new Harris poll finds, surpassing people’s fears about the delta variant over the summer—even before the variant has been formally detected in the U.S. and as much about it remains unknown.
The poll, conducted November 24-28 among 1,585 U.S. adults, found 64% have heard “a lot” or “a little” about the omicron variant, which was first detected in southern Africa last week.
Of those aware of the variant, 78% are very or somewhat concerned it will “evade existing Covid-19 vaccines”—something experts have raised concerns about, given its high number of mutations, but has not yet been proven.
A further 87% believe it is very or somewhat likely the variant will result in new restrictions and a surge in domestic Covid-19 cases.
That’s a more pessimistic outlook than Americans had about the highly transmissible delta variant over the summer: A Harris poll conducted July 9-11 found 72% of respondents were very or somewhat concerned about the strain and 51% of vaccinated respondents questioned the vaccines’ efficacy in light of the variant.
Concern about the omicron variant cuts across all demographics—with even 85% of Republicans and 78% of the unvaccinated believing cases will go up—though Gen Z is the most optimistic, with only 61% believing the variant will spur more cases and restrictions.
People of color are the most concerned about omicron, with 96% of Asian or Pacific Islander respondents, 85% of Black respondents and 91% of women of color expressing concern about vaccines’ efficacy against it and 93%, 94% and 94% of those demographics, respectively, believing the variant will cause cases to rise.
The unvaccinated are unsurprisingly the least concerned the omicron variant will evade vaccines’ protection, but the Harris poll found even 61% of unvaccinated respondents and 51% of those who refuse the vaccine are at least somewhat concerned.
President Joe Biden has urged Americans to stay calm, saying in an address Monday the new strain is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.” “We’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions, and speed — not chaos and confusion,” Biden said. “And we have more tools today to fight the variant than we’ve ever had before — from vaccines to boosters, to vaccines for children five years and older, and much more.”
A separate Morning Consult poll conducted November 29-30 found a majority of respondents backed a broad variety of measures to combat the omicron variant, including improved ventilation systems (81% support), social distancing (79%), international travel restrictions (78%), supporting efforts to vaccinate low-income countries (76%) and mandatory mask usage (72%), though only 44% support closing businesses or government facilities. The poll also found a 40% plurality believe people have “the right amount of concern” when it comes to the new variant, and that the variant could persuade the unvaccinated to get the shot, with 30% of unvaccinated adults saying they’d consider getting inoculated due to omicron.
Since being first identified in Africa last week, the omicron variant has now been identified in numerous countries around the world, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Botswana, South Africa, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal and Germany. The variant has not yet been formally detected in the U.S., though public health experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci have said it’s “inevitable” it will spread in the U.S. as well. The World Health Organization has identified omicron as a “variant of concern” given its potential transmissibility and evasion of vaccines, but little is yet known about the variant and public health experts have cautioned more data is needed to make any conclusions about the new strain. Nevertheless, the variant has sparked panic, causing stock markets to plunge worldwide on Friday and the U.S. and other countries to impose new travel restrictions.
More information on the severity of the omicron variant should be known hopefully by next week or so, Fauci said on Monday in an interview with Good Morning America, and the effectiveness of the vaccines against the new strain is now being tested, with results expected in at least two weeks. Though vaccine manufacturers like Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna have said they’re working to update their shots to protect against omicron if the data shows their effectiveness is diminished, Fauci said Monday people should not wait for these updated shots—which would be months away, at least—and should get a booster shot immediately to protect themselves. Biden has so far said he will not impose additional restrictions like lockdown measures, saying Monday there’s “no need” for harsh restrictions “if people are vaccinated and wearing a mask.”