The race gap in vaccinations is closing; the politics gap is not

Statistics find that the political divide in vaccine acceptance shows little sign of abating

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 14, 2021 7:00PM (EDT)

A Mass Patriots for Freedom Rally was held on Beacon Street in front of the State House in Boston, with hundreds protesting against mandatory COVID-19 vaccines on September 17, 2021. (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A Mass Patriots for Freedom Rally was held on Beacon Street in front of the State House in Boston, with hundreds protesting against mandatory COVID-19 vaccines on September 17, 2021. (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The Kaiser Family Foundation recently reported that roughly 78 percent of American adults said they had been at least partially vaccinated as of Oct. 5. At face value, this is welcome news; scientists generally believe that 70 percent or so of a population needs to be fully immune to achieve herd immunity. Even better, some of the initial vaccine disparities among racial groups have gradually closed.

"Though as of October 5, 2021, White people accounted for the largest share (60%) of people who are unvaccinated, Black and Hispanic people remain less likely than their White counterparts to have received a vaccine, leaving them at increased risk, particularly as the variant spreads," the foundation wrote. "However, the data show that these disparities are narrowing over time, particularly for Hispanic people."

Yet the report also revealed some troubling news — namely, that the vaccination gap has tightened between racial groups, but not among differing political factions. The observation speaks to a trend that Dr. Alfred Sommer, epidemiologist and dean emeritus at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Salon he has noticed based strictly on his personal observations: that those who refuse to get vaccinated seem to fall into one of two broad categories. The first are people from marginalized groups, such as African Americans, who (as Salon columnist D. Watkins has written) "for lots of reasons (past experimentation, poor access to equal facilities, etc) are suspicious of it all but are educable, if one really takes the time and effort to work with their communities."

The second group of vaccine-resistant are those that politically motivated, and tend to be white and to support former president Donald Trump, who himself is vaccinated.

 "The former are genuinely concerned about what is best for their health," Sommer said by email. "The latter consider it a political issue."

Sommer also acknowledged the existence of an anti-vaccine movement that preceded COVID-19, which was much smaller and, despite sexist stereotypes, predominantly male.

Much has been written about how fringe elements in the Republican Party resemble a death cult, risking their lives in defiance of public health to help an imagined cause of freedom. Yet there has also been pushback among conservatives against characterizing as reactionary everyone who refuses to get vaccinated, wear a mask and follow other public health guidelines.

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The observed political divide aligns with polls. Indeed, a previous survey conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation in September found that vaccination rates among adults were similar across racial and ethnic lines, with roughly 73 percent of Hispanic adults, 71 percent of White adults and 70 percent of Black adults vaccinated, suggesting comparable vaccination rates. Yet there was a significant disparity when it comes to political self-identification. While 90 percent of Democrats have received at least one dose of a vaccine, the same is true for only 58 percent of Republicans.

This spills over into some stark differences when it comes to policy preferences. While 83 percent of Democrats believed all staff and students in schools should have to wear masks (and 11 percent believe this should at least apply to unvaccinated students), only 29 percent of Republicans support those mask mandates, only 7 percent are willing to compromise by applying them strictly to the unvaccinated and 60 percent outright oppose them. Similarly, although 79 percent of Democrats support state and local government requirements for indoor businesses to require proof of vaccination, 78 percent of Republicans oppose such measures.

Dr. Russell Medford, Chairman of the Center for Global Health Innovation and Global Health Crisis Coordination Center, referred to some of the statistics offered by the Kaiser Family Foundation when speaking with Salon by email.

"The danger of this political sentiment is that it seeks to sow mistrust and confusion amongst the US population regarding what should be basic, apolitical and scientifically accurate facts regarding COVID-19 case rates, hospitalization, deaths, vaccine effectiveness and safety, and public health measures," Medford explained. "A valid and necessary policy debate regarding vaccines, mandates and masks must be based on a commonly accepted set of facts, not misinformation and conspiracy theories."

The real world consequences of the misinformation and conspiracy theories is right there in the data, as University of California–San Francisco medicine professor Dr. Monica Gandhi wrote to Salon.

"Although cases rose throughout the country, the hospitalization to case ratio was much lower in states with high versus low levels of vaccination, a function of the vaccines' ongoing protection against severe disease," Gandhi explained. A recent New York Times article noted that, although blue states generally had a higher number of COVID-19 cases than red ones during the early stages of the pandemic, that changed once vaccinations became readily available.

"The states with low percentages of those vaccinated definitely fared worse," Gandhi told Salon. "And, indeed, as of mid-September, 52.8% of people in counties that voted for Biden were fully vaccinated compared to 39.9% of Trump counties, an almost 13 point difference that has not abated over time. So, yes, I think there is a political divide to vaccine uptake at this point in the US."

Dr. Saad B. Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, said it was regrettable that many Americans had a personal investment in taking an anti-vaccine or otherwise anti-science position. 

"Unfortunately, due to the political dynamics in this country, pushing back against vaccines or vaccine mandates, etc. has become important to a lot of people's sense of themselves," Omer told Salon. "It's become part of their identity." Omer observed that before the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-vaccination beliefs could be widely found on both the left and the right. Now that this has changed, the dynamics of the conversation about vaccines more broadly has become politically polarized.

"There are more voices of the rights that are skeptical, especially of this vaccine," Omer pointed out. "And that unfortunately has led to more polarization and sort of this thing becoming part of people's identity."

This brings us back to Sommer's anecdotal experiences. As he put it, he does not doubt that there are Americans who have sincere concerns about the vaccine's potential to harm them. They are in a different category than those who refuse to listen to science as a form of political warfare.

"As a public health person, I understand and want to work with the former – who mostly wish to listen (if not act)," Sommer explained. "The latter do not want to even discuss it, because for them it is a political issue."

There is one statistic that underscores the steep cost of the Trumpers who have chosen to politicize COVID-19: It is believed that more than 90,000 deaths from COVID-19 since June could have been prevented with vaccines.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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