The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The undeniable overlap of politics, vaccinations and the impact of the virus’s fourth wave

A member of the National Guard administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at a drive-through facility in New Orleans on Aug. 24. (Bryan Tarnowski/Bloomberg News)

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that you are aware that a global pandemic has been going on for about 20 months. I’m further going to assume that you have watched as the response to this pandemic has been deeply woven into American politics, with a by-now mature set of partisan responses to efforts to combat the coronavirus. You’re probably aware that these responses themselves filter out into smaller fights, such as school districts battling governors over mandated mask-wearing and a bizarre insistence in some quarters on self-medicating based on Sean Hannity’s recommendations in lieu of following the advice offered by actual doctors. American ingenuity shines no brighter than when inventing things for partisans to fight about.

I highlight this established history because it’s worth recognizing that debates about the efficacy of vaccines are themselves subject to partisan bickering — something of which you are aware but, for the next few minutes, I’d ask you bring to the forefront of your attention. The murky nature of coronavirus data — a function of delays in reporting, the gap between infections and hospitalizations, and diverging reporting systems — means that there are ample opportunities to elevate skepticism for partisan purposes.

If, for example, you wish to suggest that the efficacy of vaccines is overstated because you wish to defend low vaccination rates in Republican areas as part of an often tacit effort to more broadly bolster the anti-elite throughline in right-wing politics, it’s pretty easy to pick out a number or two that allows you to pantomime chin-stroking on social media.

The reality, though, is that there’s no real question about the efficacy, as is obvious when considering the available data about the most recent wave of infections. What’s more, where politics overlaps with those data — on mandates or the lack thereof and on the adoption of vaccines in a state — it reflects negatively on that right-wing opposition.

We’ll begin with a study published Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It looked at more than 43,000 coronavirus infections in Los Angeles County from May through the end of July among people age 16 and older. On July 25, 53 percent of county residents were fully vaccinated, but, during the period studied, more than 70 percent of infections were among those who had not received a dose of coronavirus vaccine. Among those who were hospitalized or moved into intensive care, the difference was more stark: Eighty-four percent of those hospitalized and 87 percent of those in intensive care units (ICUs) were unvaccinated.

(The graph below shows the relative number of people hospitalized and sent to the ICU by the size of the second and third charts.)

“On July 25, infection and hospitalization rates among unvaccinated persons were 4.9 and 29.2 times, respectively, those in fully vaccinated persons,” the study reports. Not complicated.

Again, though, we can see how this overlaps with vaccinations and politics — which, given increased vaccine hesitancy among Republicans, themselves overlap. During the fourth wave of infections that began on June 21, eight of the 10 states (counting D.C. as a state, for convenience’s sake) with the most new cases per capita have been ones that voted for Donald Trump last year. Nine of the 10 states with the biggest increases in hospitalizations were red states, as were eight of the 10 states with the most covid-19-related deaths during that period. (That remains true if you remove Delaware, which reported a backlog of covid-19 deaths in late July that skewed its reporting numbers. As I said: The numbers can be murky.)

You’ll notice that, on those graphs, the bubbles are scaled to the level of vaccination on July 23 (halfway through the current surge). Again, that correlates directly to 2020 vote margins.

And vaccination rates also correlate to new cases during the current surge ...

... to the increase in hospitalizations ...

... and to the number of covid-19-related deaths that have been recorded. (Again, Delaware stands out for its data anomaly on this metric.)

It is not the case that every blue state is doing well and every red state terribly. Nevada has seen the fourth-most deaths relative to its population during this period, for example. Three of the 10 states that have had the fewest per capita deaths are ones that voted for Trump and have relatively low vaccination rates: Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. But the pattern is consistent across all three metrics: 18 or 19 of the 25 hardest-hit states are ones that voted for Trump, and 18 or 19 of the 25 states with the best numbers are ones that voted for Biden.

It’s not just vaccinations, of course. It’s also probably a function of other political decisions, such as what containment measures to impose, and of weather. Hotter places would be expected to have more people seeking refuge indoors in air conditioning, allowing the virus to spread more easily.

But what the evidence does not show is a lack of correlation between vaccinations and positive effects; that is, any effort to cast vaccinations as ineffective is simply unsupported by both the state-level data and by research like that assessment of Los Angeles County.

The current wave of coronavirus infections is correlated to vaccination levels and, therefore, to politics in a way that comports clearly with data on vaccine hesitancy and on partisan responses to containment measures. Correlation isn’t causation, but it’s more likely to be causation than a complete lack of correlation.