Pro-Trump counties now have far higher COVID death rates. Misinformation is to blame
An analysis by NPR shows that since the vaccine rollout, counties that voted heavily for Donald Trump have had more than twice the COVID mortality rates of those that voted for Joe Biden.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Politics are showing up in COVID rates in a new way. The political leanings of the county where a person lives may indicate their risk of dying from COVID-19. A new analysis from NPR found that conservative counties had nearly three times the death rates of more liberal ones. Other polls suggest that vaccination rates among Republicans are lagging and disinformation is playing a role. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has been looking into this partisan divide, and I talked with him earlier.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: My colleague Daniel Wood and I looked at deaths from COVID-19 since May of 2021. That's when the vaccines became widely available. And what we did was we compared those death rates to election data from the 2020 election. We found that counties that went heavily for Trump, 60% or more, had much higher death rates than those that went for Biden. Now, for another disease, say, like the flu, there probably isn't this connection because the flu is not politically fraught the way COVID is.
BRUMFIEL: But unfortunately for COVID, there's this real stark trend, and the bigger the margin for Trump, the higher on average the death rate.
MARTIN: So why?
BRUMFIEL: I mean, it's actually remarkably simple. Those counties, also on average, have much lower vaccination rates. We checked that trend as well. And vaccination lowers your chances of dying from COVID by 14 times, according to the CDC. So, I mean, it's a huge effect - getting vaccinated.
MARTIN: So when we think about why Republicans are still falling behind on vaccination, I mean, is this where the disinformation comes in?
BRUMFIEL: That's exactly right. I mean, I spoke to this guy named Mark Valentine. His brother was a conservative talk show host, Phil Valentine, who died back in August from COVID-19. And Mark told me that conservatives' trust in official sources of information is very low, and that lets lies about the vaccines take hold and spread. He sort of describes conservative America as the perfect marketplace for anti-vaccine propaganda.
MARK VALENTINE: They're selling it, and people are buying it, and folks are dying.
BRUMFIEL: And the polling data from the Kaiser Family Foundation really shows that connection. Ninety-four percent of Republicans think one or more false statements about COVID and vaccines might be true. And many believe multiple statements - belief in these false statements is hugely correlated with the decision not to take the vaccine. Liz Hamel heads polling for Kaiser. She says Republicans now make up the largest share of unvaccinated people in America.
LIZ HAMEL: An unvaccinated person is three times as likely to lean Republican as they are to lean Democrat.
MARTIN: Three times - I mean, that's big.
MARTIN: So here we are at the holiday season. Cases are rising again. Omicron variant is out there. Where's all this heading, from your perspective, when you look at these numbers?
BRUMFIEL: It's pretty discouraging. I mean, vaccine mandates have driven up the numbers somewhat. But several folks I spoke to actually fear it's going to make things worse in this particular group. I mean, it's supercharged the misinformation and the politics around vaccines. Mark Valentine's been trying to convince people that they need to get vaccinated, and he's found it to be a real uphill battle.
VALENTINE: People have a natural aversion to the realities of horrific things like this until it hits them.
BRUMFIEL: He thinks trust is low, and so it may take more direct contact with COVID to convince people, and unfortunately, that may be what's about to happen.
MARTIN: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Geoff, we appreciate you. Thanks.
BRUMFIEL: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "LATE BLOOMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
This story has been updated to clarify the relationship of political partisanship to vaccination status.
Additionally, Florida's counties were removed from the analysis after publication because we learned that Florida has not updated county-level death numbers since June 3, 2021. With the removal of these 67 counties, heavily Trump counties go from a 2.73 times higher death rate than heavily Biden counties to 2.78 times more.