Since the fourth surge in new cases began in late June, about 54,000 more people have died of covid-19. Nearly 1 in 5 of those deaths have occurred in Florida — 18 percent of the deaths come from a state that makes up about 6 percent of the country’s population. What’s more, over the course of the surge, the percentage of deaths occurring in Florida has been increasing.
It’s only natural to wonder whether DeSantis’s approach to the pandemic overlaps with the effects of the disease in his state. Is it about his leadership? Is it a coincidence, a function of the delta variant emerging as the South experiences a spike in cases thanks to people moving indoors for the summer? Is it because his state has a large population of Republicans who are less likely to have been vaccinated? A combination of those factors? Something else?
Answering these questions is tricky. It is also fundamentally unimportant. Even without a clear answer, it’s obvious that there’s an overlap of vaccination rates, party identity and pandemic outcomes that intertwines the discussion about the pandemic with partisan politics. It is inescapably the case that, even if party doesn’t play a significant role in pandemic outcomes, the debate is largely framed through a partisan lens anyway — often to a hyperbolic degree.
One reason for that is that there is an obvious string of correlations here. More deaths from the virus occur in places where there are more cases. There are more cases in places where vaccination rates are lower. Vaccination rates are lower in places that voted more heavily Republican in 2020. How transitive these equations are is the question posed above, but it is trivial to follow the thread from one to the next to the next.
For example, here is the relationship between cases, deaths, vaccinations and 2020 vote as of Thursday. Of the 23 states that have new case totals per capita higher than the nation overall, 21 voted for Donald Trump in November. Sixteen are among the 17 states that have the lowest rates of vaccination. Of the 18 states that have new death totals higher than the national ratio, 14 voted for Trump and 12 are among the 17 least-vaccinated states.
It’s also important to note that the pandemic is not unfolding the way it did last summer. If we take the difference between each state’s per-capita cases and deaths relative and the national figure and average it by 2020 vote, we see that red states are doing much worse relative to the country on the whole than are blue states. The vertical dashed lines below indicate Sept. 9, 2020, and Sept. 9, 2021 — that is, now and one year ago. Not only are cases and deaths now higher relative to the country overall than they were then, but the figures in blue states are much lower.
If we look at the same patterns using the vaccination-rate groupings, we see that it’s the least-vaccinated states that are being hit hardest, followed by the middle group and then the most-vaccinated states.
Particularly noteworthy on the above graphs is that Florida is in the middle tier of states for vaccinations — yet less-vaccinated states are still doing far worse on average in terms of cases and deaths. It’s also interesting to note that, because vaccination rates correlate strongly to 2020 vote, the patterns for the most-vaccinated states mirror the patterns for blue states.
Again, the chain of correlation here is indisputable: Republicans have been less concerned about the virus, less likely to embrace practices such as masking, more likely to express opposition to vaccination and (obviously) voted more heavily for Trump — and now, after vaccinations have been made broadly available, states that are seeing the most new cases and deaths are states that are less heavily vaccinated and were more supportive of Trump last year. All of that is obviously and provably true, making it much harder to assert that politics is not playing any role.
Again, though, that’s irrelevant. The debate is already infused with partisanship anyway. You can guess the partisanship of a guy using a “Don’t Fauci My Florida” beer coozie (for sale at DeSantis’s campaign website) as surely as you can for a guy driving a pickup truck with a Blue Lives Matter bumper sticker or for a Prius driver wearing a “Follow the Science” shirt.
The Pew Research Center regularly polls Americans to gauge the demographic identifiers that spur the broadest disagreement on issues. You might think that it’s gender or age or race. It isn’t. It’s party, by a mile. That party is now intertwined with the extent to which America is willing to tamp down on a deadly virus is, to put it mildly, disadvantageous.