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COVID Stumble: US Politics, Vaccine Hesitancy, & Mortality

December 15, 2021

Summary: On Monday we posted on how well Taiwan dealt with COVID; today, one way the US fell sadly short. NPR reports that COVID mortality is 3 times higher in heavily Trump than heavily Biden counties – due to lower vaccination rates, in turn due to misinformation and vaccine hesitancy. Thus political division and distortion of science are deadly.

Pro-Trump counties now have far higher COVID death rates. Misinformation is to blame
NPR Morning Edition
December 5, 2021
Daniel Wood and Geoff Brumfiel

Since May 2021, people living in counties that voted heavily for Donald Trump during the last presidential election have been nearly three times as likely to die from COVID-19 as those who live in areas that went for now-President Biden.

NPR looked at deaths per 100,000 people in roughly 3,000 counties across the U.S. from May 2021, the point at which vaccinations widely became available. People living in counties that went 60% or higher for Trump in November 2020 had 2.73 times the death rates of those that went for Biden.

In October, the reddest tenth of the country saw death rates that were six times higher than the bluest tenth…

The data also reveal a major contributing factor to the death rate difference: The higher the vote share for Trump, the lower the vaccination rate.

Recent polling shows that partisanship is now this single strongest identifying predictor of whether someone is vaccinated. Polling also shows that mistrust in official sources of information and exposure to misinformation, about both COVID-19 and the vaccines, run high among Republicans.

It was not always this way. Earlier in the pandemic, many different groups expressed hesitancy toward getting vaccinated. African Americans, younger Americans and rural Americans all had significant portions of their demographic that resisted vaccination. But over time, the vaccination rates in those demographics have risen, while the rate of Republican vaccination against COVID-19 has flatlined at just 59%, according to the latest numbers from Kaiser. By comparison, 91% of Democrats are vaccinated.

Being unvaccinated increases the risk of death from COVID-19 dramatically, according to the CDC. The vast majority of deaths since May, around 150,000, have occurred among the unvaccinated, says Peter Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

While vaccine hesitancy exists in many different groups, Hotez suspects that the deaths are “overwhelmingly” concentrated in more politically conservative communities. “How does this make sense at any level?” he asks.

Republicans are far more likely to believe false statements about COVID-19 and vaccines. A full 94% of Republicans think one or more false statements about COVID-19 and vaccines might be true, and 46% believe four or more statements might be true. By contrast, only 14% of Democrats believe four or more false statements about the disease.

Comment by: Gregg Gonsalves and Robert Heimer

This is an interesting look by NPR at vaccine hesitancy, COVID-19 conspiracy thinking and its impact on pandemic mortality by political affiliation. Similar trends have been noted in the New York Times, by the Kaiser Family Foundation and researchers.

However, many of these stories have put the onus on individuals, neglecting to mention or downplaying the notion that it is elected officials, at the state and local levels, who have downplayed and even legislated against epidemic control measures that promote or require masking, testing, or getting vaccinated. The focus on individuals completely neglects the structural determinants of health.

What would be more informative to see would be an analysis of the statements of local and state officials who, aligning with the anti-science attitudes of President Trump, instituted policies at these levels of jurisdiction, and how these policies led to increased COVID-19 mortality. We would assume—and let’s put it to the test—that these factors might have a stronger relationship with mortality than simply voting patterns in the last election.

However, such a simple analysis is likely to miss one of the key features of the cumulative mortality of the COVID pandemic. In the first months of the pandemic, as we were accumulating knowledge about SARS-CoV-2 transmissibility and severity, especially in specific populations, the first places where the virus spread were hit hardest. These include very blue regions of the country. What is disappointing is that the lessons learned there were dismissed in more red regions, perhaps in part because the lessons came from blue states.  

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