It doesn’t seem to have had much effect. With the administration now engaged in conversations centered on potentially reintroducing mask-wearing recommendations as cases rise, there’s a lesson to be learned from what happened two months ago.
There is a pattern that has emerged in vaccinations since spring. States that voted for Joe Biden have consistently seen higher rates of vaccination than states that voted for Donald Trump. That’s true of the percentage of each state’s population that’s fully vaccinated, but it’s more true of the percent of the population in each state that has received at least one dose of a vaccine.
You’ll notice that the divide between red states and blue states appeared to emerge at about the point that the Food and Drug Administration announced a temporary pause in the distribution of shots from Johnson & Johnson. That was also the point at which states were beginning to reach saturation on the oldest vaccine recipients, so it’s likely that the shift had multiple causes. But notice, too, that the lifting of the mask mandate (which wasn’t really a mandate, as such, but for the sake of brevity ...) doesn’t appear to have shifted vaccinations back up very much, if at all.
If we look at the number of vaccine doses distributed nationally and in blue and red states relative to the pause and to the lifting of the mandate, we can see those patterns pretty clearly. Using the number of doses distributed two weeks before the start of the pause as our baseline, we see that the number of vaccinations in all three groups increased one week before the pause began. During the pause, red-state vaccinations dropped below the baseline while blue-state vaccinations stayed above. But in the seven days after the pause was lifted, both the blue- and red-state averages and the national figure had dropped.
The tail end of the period two weeks after the pause ended overlaps with the period before the mandate was lifted. But in each case, the trend after that point was downward.
On a state-by-state basis, the changes are more subtle. In Alaska, Rhode Island, Vermont and Texas, vaccinations increased in one of the two weeks after the mandate was lifted. In every other state (ignoring the anomalous data in New Hampshire), the lifting of the mandate doesn’t appear to have had much effect.
This graph also allows us to see the change in vaccinations by week in each state relative to the Johnson & Johnson pause. In most states, the number of vaccinations was steady or increasing before the pause. Then, it dropped. In red states, it often dropped far more than in blue states.
Stepping back, it’s fairly obvious why lifting the mask mandate wouldn’t have spurred vaccinations. Those who were assiduously wearing masks were more likely to be treating the pandemic as a risk in the first place — and therefore to have gotten a vaccine as soon as possible. Those who didn’t see the virus as a threat wouldn’t have been worried about masks or vaccines. We see this in poll data: Those who are most concerned about the virus were most eager to get vaccinated. And those individuals were more likely to be Democrats than Republicans.
This is also the problem with reintroducing rules promoting mask-wearing. Such a reversion would be unpopular and is unlikely to be embraced by legislators with significant vaccine-hostile constituencies. Americans who are indifferent to the risk posed by the virus would be unlikely to embrace such a reintroduction. Those who would approve of new mask rules have probably already been vaccinated.
Partisanship is not the only factor in why many Americans haven’t been vaccinated. But it is a factor, and it’s one that obviously overlaps with the politics at play. For President Biden, the best hope is that the new increase in cases stalls and that the number of deaths it prompts is lessened by the vaccines themselves. Everything beyond that introduces a series of largely difficult choices.