Michigan: A case study of how the #COVID19 partisan "hoax"/anti-science divide has led to the COVID19 partisan vaccination divide


As regular readers know, for over a year now, I've been tracking the spread of COVID-19 per capita case and death rates a) at the county (not just state) level and b) along partisan lines.

The most obvious example of this has been my weekly updated breakout of the RATIO between the case & death rates over time in "Blue Counties" (those won in 2016 by Hillary Clinton, later replaced by those won in 2020 by Joe Biden, by at least 6 points or more) vs. the rates in "Red Counties" (those won by Donald Trump in 2016, late replaced with 2020 results, by 6 points or more).

As of last week, that graph looked like this:

By its very nature, a highly-communicable virus is far more likely to spread more quickly among a more densely populated population...and one which originated overseas will naturally be more likely to start out in a major international travel hub. As it happens, Democrats are far more likely to live in more densely-populated urban areas...which in turn are far more likely to have major sea and airports.

Democrats also tend to be far more racially diverse, and as it happens, Black and Hispanic Americans tend (surprise, surprise) to have less access to decent healthcare coverage and/or facilities than White Americans...who in turn are far more likely to be Republican and to live in more sparsely-populated, rural parts of the country.

Sure enough, it was the Blue States (and the Blue Counties in particular) which got hit and hit hard early last year, with New York, New Jersey, Chicago (heavily Blue in a Blue state), Detroit (heavily Blue in a Purple state) and New Orleans (heavily Blue in a a Red state) and so forth being slammed.

This being the case, the Trump Administration decided to attempt to capitalize on the situation by massively understating the seriousness of the pandemic while simultaneously blowing off its devastating impact on Democratic-leaning parts of the country. Katherine Eban famously reported for Vanity Fair last summer:

But no nationally coordinated testing strategy was ever announced. The plan, according to the participant, “just went poof into thin air.”

...the effort ran headlong into shifting sentiment at the White House. Trusting his vaunted political instincts, President Trump had been downplaying concerns about the virus and spreading misinformation about it—efforts that were soon amplified by Republican elected officials and right-wing media figures. Worried about the stock market and his reelection prospects, Trump also feared that more testing would only lead to higher case counts and more bad publicity.

...Most troubling of all, perhaps, was a sentiment the expert said a member of Kushner’s team expressed: that because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically. “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy,” said the expert.

...On April 27, Trump stepped to a podium in the Rose Garden, flanked by members of his coronavirus task force and leaders of America’s big commercial testing laboratories, Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, and finally announced a testing plan: It bore almost no resemblance to the one that had been forged in late March, and shifted the problem of diagnostic testing almost entirely to individual states.

Since then, of course, we know what happened: The COVID-19 case and death rates in the more sparsely-populated Red states started to catch up to, and eventually surpass, the rates in the Blue states. Since the beginning of 2021, the rates in each have pretty much stabilized, with both running slightly higher in the Red states.

I've caught a decent amount of flack from people (both well-meaning and not so well-meaning) for tracking COVID-19 in this way...but as I said last summer:

I hope the Vanity Fair article puts to rest any complaints that it's "inappropriate" for me to be viewing the data through a partisan lens...because when the President of the United States, the HHS Dept., the Centers for Disease Control and the rest of the executive branch of the federal government is doing so, it means policy is being determined based on it. Pretending it "doesn't matter" because it shouldn't matter doesn't magically make it so.

AGAIN: SHOULD a deadly pandemic be "politicized"? Of course not. But the moment the Trump Administration decided to do so (basically the moment they found out about it), the die was cast...and when nearly every GOP official decided to run with it, it was baked in. Once that happened, pretending that there was "no good reason to track it along partisan lines" became as delusional as saying that you shouldn't track it based on age, geography, population density, socioeconomic status, ethnicity and so forth.

Like it or not, Trump quite deliberately decided to make "partisan lean" one of the most important factors in how to proceed with COVID-19 policy across the board...and most of the GOP was all too willing to fall in line.

We have a new President, a new Administration, and all-new public health officials calling the shots (literally) now...but the damage had already long since been done.

Lo and behold, cut to 9 months later, and we have headlines like this:

Nearly half of Republicans say they don’t want a Covid vaccine, a big public health challenge.

But more than two in five Republicans said they would avoid getting vaccinated if possible, suggesting that President Biden has not succeeded in his effort to depoliticize the vaccines — and leaving open the question of whether the country will be able to achieve herd immunity without a stronger push from Republican leaders to bring their voters on board.

‘I’m still a zero’: Vaccine-resistant Republicans warn that their skepticism is worsening

...Although more than half of U.S. adults have received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine, more than 40 percent of Republicans have consistently told pollsters they’re not planning to be vaccinated — a group that could threaten efforts to tamp down the virus’s spread, public health officials fear.

And, of course, that inevitably has led to this:

Least Vaccinated U.S. Counties Have Something in Common: Trump Voters

About 31 percent of adults in the United States have now been fully vaccinated. Scientists have estimated that 70 to 90 percent of the total population must acquire resistance to the virus to reach herd immunity. But in hundreds of counties around the country, vaccination rates are low, with some even languishing in the teens.

The disparity in vaccination rates has so far mainly broken down along political lines. The New York Times examined survey and vaccine administration data for nearly every U.S. county and found that both willingness to receive a vaccine and actual vaccination rates to date were lower, on average, in counties where a majority of residents voted to re-elect former President Donald J. Trump in 2020. The phenomenon has left some places with a shortage of supply and others with a glut.

Well gee, thanks, New York Times.

As a born & raised Michigander, I decided to drill down more closely into my own state. The pattern has been the same as the national picture. The ratio of cases per capita today is nearly identical (6.2% higher in the Red counties vs. 6.3% nationally), and while deaths per capita are still 2.7% higher in the Blue counties, Michigan has shown a steady shift to the Red here as well.

On the vaccine front, meanwhile...yep, as of today, Michigan's handful of large Blue counties (the 12 counties which voted for Biden last fall have 55% of the population) have vaccinated 36.2% of their residents, while the other 71 Trump-voting counties have only vaccinated 32.9% of theirs.

(I should note that I'm counting the entire population of each county, not just those 16 & older, and I'm defining "% vaccinated" as the total number of doses divided by 2, then divided by the total population, since both Pfizer & Moderna require 2 shots apiece, and the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine only makes up a tiny portion of the whole).

While this may not seem like much (3.3 percentage points), but that means vaccinations are running 10% higher in the Biden counties than the Trump counties. More significantly, the Red counties have 22% more senior citizens per capita. Seeing how those 65+ had something like a 3-month head start on the rest of us, all else being equal you'd expect Trump areas to be way ahead of Biden areas at this point...and yet they're 9% behind.

Here's a scatter plot graph showing where every county in Michigan stands on vaccination progress as of today, sorted by the 2020 Presidential election results. Unfortunately I don't have the ability to size the dots by county population, but you get the idea:

UPDATE: From a Bloomberg article this morning about the drop-off in vaccinations over the past week or two:

In Louisiana in mid-March, the state was starting vaccinations for almost 20,000 people a day. As of April 27, that number had fallen to 5,807 people a day, using a seven-day average. On a per-capita basis, it’s one of the lowest rates in the country, in a state that ranks only ahead of Mississippi in people who have started vaccinations.

“We were seeing the beginning signs of slowing before the J&J pause,” said Joseph Kanter, Louisiana’s state health officer. “The pause did not help that at all, but I would not blame it.” 

Kanter, in a phone interview, said that it’s been a challenge to get people in more rural parts of the state to get vaccinated. He said he’s been surprised by some of the resistance to the shots. “The politicization of it caught me a little bit off guard,” he said. 

No offense to Mr. Kanter, but perhaps if he'd been following my work over the past year he wouldn't have been caught off guard. Just saying.

UPDATE 5/08: I haven't updated the scatter plot graph yet, but that 10% gap has already grown slightly to a 10.9% gap.