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July 7, 2020

Contact: Jamey Dunn-Thomason
               (217) 300-8409


IGPA releases results from Pandemic Stress Indicator expert poll

URBANA — The University of Illinois System’s Institute of Government and Public Affairs (IGPA) today released results from the fourth wave of its Pandemic Stress Indicator expert poll.

IGPA is developing several Pandemic Stress Indicators, designed to evaluate the social and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Illinois residents. The Pandemic Stress Indicators grew out of the work on IGPA’s Task Force on the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

This first stress indicator is a frequent poll of three sets of experts about pandemic policies. Experts on economics, public health, and/or vulnerable populations from across Illinois have generously agreed to provide regular opinions on various pandemic policies. The panelists, with affiliations, are listed in the full report.

Surveys were completed July 1-6, with 25 responses in total (11 experts in economics, seven in public health, and seven in vulnerable populations).

We asked respondents if the recent shift from Phase 3 (Recovery) to Phase 4 (Revitalization) in their region of the state was premature, timely, or overdue. The relatively small number of respondents, particularly for the north-central and southern regions, make comparison a bit risky, but experts in the Chicago area seem warier of relaxed rules having been introduced too early, while the experts in the center of the state were more likely to see the shift as overdue.

Table 1 

As we did with the shift from Phase 2 to Phase 3, we asked the experts to opine on some of the restrictions in place for Phase 4. Are they sensible, too restrictive, or not restrictive enough? No respondent found any of the rules too restrictive, but there was some division on whether they were reasonable or too lax.

Table 2 

About a month ago, in the second wave of this panel, the shift to allowing indoor worship services struck 77% of our respondents as not sufficiently restrictive, and stood apart from six other rules that were then seen as sensible by large majorities. In this wave, disapproval for the permission of religious services is a bit lower and comparable to reactions to most of the changes. The outlier, instead, is re-opening of schools, preschools and universities—a change that is not actually being implemented just yet in most cases because of summer breaks. Roughly three-quarters of respondents found this shift sensible, while they were mainly nervous that the other openings (with guidance) were risky.

Looking ahead to the shift out of restrictions and back to normal life, we set aside the question of when parts of the state might shift to Phase 5, and asked how the shift will take place.

“The shift from Phase 4 (Revitalization) to Phase 5 (Illinois Restored) is presently described as depending on ‘Vaccine, effective and widely available treatment, OR the elimination of new cases over a sustained period of time through herd immunity or other factors’ (emphasis added). Do you think that when parts of Illinois are reclassified to Phase 5 it will be because of...”

Table 3 

Revising the criteria for moving from one phase to the next played a role in the most recent shift, from Phase 3 to Phase 4, as requirements for contact tracing were quietly set aside. Just the same, the most popular answer was not that the criteria would adjust over time, but that Phase 5 will come only with a vaccine.

We asked the experts to forecast about six months out, by telling us their best guess for what classification each of the state’s four regions will have at the end of 2020.

Table 4 

While the most popular prediction for all regions was the status-quo (i.e. still in Phase 4), there was also substantial pessimism about shifting backward. Those respondents who foresee parts of the state being classified as “restored” are almost exactly matched by those who expect some regions to be all the way back to Phase 1 (“Rapid Spread”) at year’s end.

“None of the respondents who said it would take a vaccine for the state to progress into Phase 5 thought that would happen by the end of this year,” said Brian Gaines, an IGPA senior scholar and professor of political science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “The few who did predict that the state could be in Phase 5 by the end of the year thought that it would happen after a change in the criteria for entering the phase. So, their prediction could be seen less as optimism about the pandemic fading than cynicism about political pressures to assert that it has faded.”

We also offered respondents a series of claims or contentions sometimes heard in discussions and debates about policy, asking for an agree/disagree reaction. Table 5 shows responses, with abbreviations for the topic. The full, precise text for each claim (row) is immediately below the table.

Table 5 

The claims were randomly ordered in the survey, and the order in Table 5 is arbitrary. If one attempts to order them by degree of consensus, the “winner” is probably that the US is handling the COVID-19 crisis badly, by comparison to “other rich democracies” (item J). There was, likewise, almost unanimity that there are indisputable benefits from wearing masks (in public) (item K). The only other row with more than half of the responses in one column is a different kind of consensus, not to agreement or disagreement, but, rather, to uncertainty.

The question of whether exposure to COVID-19 creates “medium- or long-term immunity” (item C) is central to the prospect of “herd immunity.” But the suggestion that immunity is “very likely” pushed 71 percent of respondents into the uncertain or ambivalent response (six both agree and disagree, and 11 not sure).

Just over half of the respondents agreed or agreed strongly that “Most schools in Illinois will not be able to hold in-person classes safely this fall.” Our wording was perhaps ill-chosen, alas, because that agreement could indicate an expectation of safe (though quite possibly inferior) online schooling at most schools. Or, in a very different eventuality, agreement could follow from an expectation of unsafe (and unwise) in-person schooling being the norm.

At the other end of the spectrum, respondents were sharply divided on whether local officials ought to have discretion in implementing restrictions (item E). That dispersion was evident within each expert group too. Similarly, item A saw a roughly equal agree/disagree split with lots of middle responses. But, by contrast with E, A separated economists from public health and vulnerable-population experts. “Life years lost” is a measure that takes account of not only the fatality count but also the age of those who die. When a disease is particularly hard on the elderly, rather than claiming the lives of young and old alike, it can look much less disastrous in the metric of life-years-lost than it does in the simpler metric of total deaths. It transpires that in our small panel, economists are much more enamored of this statistic.

Five of the 11 economists agreed (one strongly) that the media ought to discuss life-years-lost more and deaths less. None strongly disagreed. Meanwhile, only three of the 14 others agreed (none strongly), and two strongly disagreed. Yet again, however, there is potential ambiguity, as one might disagree with the claim because (s)he thinks deaths are the right statistic for media reports, or because (s)he thinks the media does not neglect discussing life years lost, in contrast to the wording of the claim.

We concluded the survey by inviting the experts to go beyond assessing our small battery of contentions, by telling us If there are “particular arguments about the pandemic and pandemic policies that you think are important and correct but under-emphasized or misunderstood, or incorrect, but widely believed.”

Some respondents emphasized education, noting that the public has not been well enough instructed in how to use masks or in why contact tracing is imperative. One complained that “the use of masks has become over-politicized.” Another respondent was bleak, noting that present-day “expectations are not in-line with what infectious disease experts know—we are in the first mile of a marathon."


About the Institute of Government and Public Affairs
IGPA seeks to improve public policy discussion through non-partisan, evidence-based research and public engagement in Illinois. Learn more at igpa.uillinois.edu and follow @IllinoisIGPA for the latest updates.