The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What if, actually, vaccine advocates want people *not* to die?

A health-care worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine in Birmingham, Ala., on Aug. 28. (Andi Rice/Bloomberg News)

CNN’s Jake Tapper presented Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) with a fairly simple question Sunday: Why, given his state’s brutal death toll from the coronavirus pandemic — 311 deaths for every 100,000 residents, the highest rate in the country — was he disparaging President Biden’s efforts to contain the virus?

Reeves insisted that his state had “taken action” and was seeing an increase in vaccinations that wasn’t reflected in the state’s recent death toll. He compared Mississippi’s position to those of Virginia and North Carolina, suggesting that Tapper didn’t want to talk about them “perhaps because they have Democrat governors.” (He also mentioned West Virginia, which does not have a Democratic governor.)

“The reality is that you and the president and so many other people want to make this about politics,” Reeves said. “This virus is not just attacking Republicans in red states. This virus is attacking Republicans and Democrats in red states and in blue states.”

That’s true. But most of those who are dying are dying in more-Republican places.

It certainly isn’t specific to Mississippi. On Friday, Alabama’s state health officer announced that the state saw more deaths than births in 2020, largely a function of the pandemic.

Alabama, West Virginia and Mississippi are among the five states that have seen the lowest rates of vaccination against the virus. They’re also among the states that were the most red — that is, the most Republican — in their vote in last year’s presidential contest. You can see Mississippi and Alabama on the graph below: further to the right politically, lower on vaccine uptake.

Since vaccination has been shown to reduce the risk of hospitalization and death after contracting covid-19, there’s a reason to suspect that lower-vaccinated states would see worse outcomes. But since the pandemic has been so deeply politicized for well over a year, Reeves tried to suggest that Biden’s forceful advocacy for vaccines had an ulterior motive.

“The president’s not focused on saving lives,” he said. “The president’s focused on a — taking unilateral action to show — to show his power, to show that he’s doing something, but that’s not going to solve things.”

In other words, Biden is just trying to demonstrate authority, not to save lives.

Over at Breitbart, long the megaphone for fringier right-wing rhetoric, a commentator actually took this line of thinking further: Biden and Democrats are encouraging Republicans to get vaccinated so that they reflexively don’t get vaccinated — and therefore die. It’s an effort both to blame Biden for low vaccination uptake among Republicans, which is the case, and to score political points against him while doing it.

Here’s a theory that contrasts with both Reeves and Breitbart: Maybe Biden is trying to have fewer people die at a moment when deaths are disproportionately concentrated in places that vote more heavily Republican.

It’s true that how a county votes is not reflective of the political views of everyone in the county. It could be, for example, that in heavily Republican areas, large groups of Democrats got together, contracted the virus and died of it to prove a point or something. But it is the case that, when clustering counties into buckets based on how they voted in 2020, the virus has recently been much deadlier relative to the population of those counties in places that were more pro-Trump.

You can see how the virus hit hard in heavily blue counties — specifically New York City and its surrounding area — at the outset of the pandemic. Last winter, though, things were a bit worse in more-red places. This overlapped with the pandemic having already become heavily political, with Republicans more likely to consider the virus unthreatening and to reject recommendations like wearing masks. As the months passed and the vaccines became available, a new dimension of partisan polarization was introduced. And in the past month, it’s been red states that have been hardest hit.

We put a box around September of this year and September of last. You’ll notice that, then, the difference between more-blue and more-red counties was subtle. Now it is not.

We can look at the same data in another way. Here, we can see both how much worse the death toll was in more-red counties last winter but also how it was the most-red places then, like now, that have been hit hardest.

There aren’t many takeaways from this beyond that something is different in heavily Republican parts of the country that makes the effects of the pandemic worse. That those places are also less densely vaccinated is one of them.

Maybe the point of running that Breitbart piece was to double-cross the devious Democrats by secretly agreeing to survive the pandemic. And maybe that was Biden’s three-dimensional chess move all along: promote the vaccine so that the far right wouldn’t get it until they came to think he wanted them not to get it and then they got it, just as Biden wanted.

It’s almost too simple.