The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At the end of the second year of the pandemic, the effects are more obviously partisan than ever

Registered nurse Rachel Chamberlin steps out of an isolation room where Fred Rutherford recovers from covid-19 at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., on Jan. 3. (Steven Senne/AP)

It was two years ago Friday that the ramifications of the emerging coronavirus pandemic became tangible. On March 11, 2020, the NBA announced that it was halting all games and the first celebrity, Tom Hanks, announced that he’d tested positive. (The first trailer for the movie he was filming at the time was released late last month.)

The pandemic evolved quickly. At the recommendation of President Donald Trump and medical experts, business and social interactions were halted. Scientists soon confirmed that face coverings reduced the spread of the virus and mask-wearing became a recommendation — and, at times, a mandate. By the end of the year, an unprecedented effort to develop a vaccine, spurred by government investment and encouragement, resulted in safe, effective preventive measures. By the time March 11, 2021, rolled around, the pandemic seemed like it was getting under control.

But it wasn’t. Trump’s initial embrace of methods to control the spread of the virus had been quickly scuttled in favor of rapidly returning the economy to normal before Election Day. He elevated skepticism of expert opinions and scoffed at mask-wearing. His watchword was almost uniformly that the virus was not something to fear, something for which miraculous cures were available and that would evaporate in short order.

The pandemic might have become partisan without Trump and without the amplification of the conservative media ecosystem; it’s hard to know. But particularly now, at the two-year mark, it’s inescapably the case that the second year was worse than the first because of America’s partisan divide.

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Consider three metrics: cases, deaths and vaccinations by month.

Case totals are skewed by the dearth of testing at the outset of the pandemic but, with the exception of January when the omicron variant was raging through large cities, it’s almost always been the case that there were more new cases recorded in counties that voted for Trump in 2020 than ones that voted for President Biden on a population-adjusted basis.

For deaths, the divide is even more stark. In nearly every month after the initial few months of the pandemic, there have been more deaths per-population in Trump-voting counties than Biden-voting ones. The reverse is true of vaccinations; after the first two months, there have been more fully vaccinated people added each month in blue counties than red ones. As the Kaiser Family Foundation noted last year, the unvaccinated are now far more likely to be Republicans than Democrats.

And of course, the unvaccinated are far more likely to die of the virus, even the omicron variant. The second and third graphs above are related: Lower densities of vaccination means higher risk of infection and death.

Consider the change from the first year of the pandemic (until March 11, 2021) to the second (since March 11, 2021). The number of cases in blue counties is understated given that lack of testing. But the number of population-adjusted deaths in blue counties fell in the second year while it rose in red counties. At the same time, blue counties easily outpaced red ones on vaccinations.

Notice on that graph that red counties that voted more heavily for Trump fared worse on deaths and vaccinations than ones that were more narrowly decided.

This raises another important point: While pandemic responses and effects overlap with party, they also correlate to party more broadly. As I wrote Sunday, there’s an overlapping set of beliefs that intertwine with party. That the virus doesn’t pose much risk, that we can’t trust medical experts, that vaccination isn’t useful. All of those views are more common among Republicans as polling has shown since nearly the outset of the pandemic — and all of them overlap with the rhetoric that Trump injected into the conversation in the first months the coronavirus was spreading.

Ipsos, conducting polling for Axios, finds a similar stratification of views by both party and media consumption. They provided The Post with monthly data showing overall views of several questions as well as party views broken out by media consumption: Democrats who mostly consume CNN and MSNBC, Republicans who mostly watch Fox News, other Democrats, other Republicans and independents who don’t cite a significant news source. Comparing the views of each of those groups to the public overall, some obvious patterns emerge.

Democrats, particularly those who follow mainstream cable news, are more likely to see covid-19 as a risk, to trust the CDC and to have gotten vaccinated and boosted. They’re also less likely to have contracted covid — or, at least, to report having contracted the virus.

Republicans, on the other hand, are less likely to say covid-19 is a risk and more likely than the public overall to say they contracted the virus. They’re also more likely to say that they don’t trust the CDC, a view that increased quickly as the pandemic continued.

Notice, though, that even Republicans who don’t watch Fox News (which includes those without a significant news source) are less trusting of the CDC and less likely to see covid as a risk. Party is a better predictor here than media consumption.

While this overlaps with Trump’s rhetoric, it’s impossible to say that Trump was the central cause for Republican indifference to the virus and skepticism of medical officials. There’s no question he encouraged both views, of course, and Republican concern about the pandemic reflected his position in the first months of the pandemic. There’s similarly no question that his allies on Fox News quickly worked to backstop his positions. But some significant portion of the effects may simply be that Trump and Fox were reflecting a broad conservative worldview that was also the main trigger for Republican Americans.

What is clear, though, is that the pandemic’s second year, more than the first, was driven by partisanship. In the first year, the number of population-adjusted covid-related deaths was about the same in blue and red counties. In year two, red counties saw far more loss of life as they increasingly trailed on vaccination and as Republicans were increasingly less likely to get booster doses of the vaccine.

Many have asked why America’s response to the pandemic has been so lacking. In part, it seems, it’s because America’s partisanship is so robust.