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Pandemic of tribalism: Anti-vaccination messaging and misinformation kills

As the highly transmissible Delta variant drives the latest surge of Covid-19 cases, a toxic political divide is nourishing an environment where a “pandemic of the unvaccinated” can exist in a country with such an abundance of vaccine supply.     

The U.S. has long had more doses on hand than it can give away, having reached a point of stagnancy in an otherwise wildly successful vaccination program. Many countries still suffer vaccine shortages; less than 1 percent of Nigeria’s 201 million residents have been fully vaccinated, and just shy of one in five Mexican citizens are protected against the virus. Yet in the U.S., vaccine hesitancy, not supply has been the problem. Reasons for vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. are wide ranging, though extreme political rhetoric and conspiracy theories peddled by pundits with less than honorable intentions deserve their share of blame for the latest spike.

In an April Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Q&A on herd immunity, Gypsyamber D’Souza and David Dowdly explain that true pandemic recovery is dependent on global response:

“This is a global concern as well. As long as there are unvaccinated populations in the world, SARS-CoV-2 will continue to spread and mutate, and additional variants will emerge. In the U.S. and elsewhere, booster vaccination may become necessary if variants arise that can evade the immune response provoked by current vaccines.”  

According to a People’s Vaccine Alliance survey in March, first-generation vaccines could become ineffective against new mutations sooner rather than later. Of 77 epidemiologists in 28 different countries, two-thirds predicted we will hit that point by March 2022. Sixteen respondents put that target at December of this year.   

Even still, our current vaccines and vaccination programs have the ability to stem that tide.

The rapid-pace deployment of vaccines in the U.S. saved about 279,000 lives and avoided up to 1.25 million hospitalizations by June, according to a model run by The Commonwealth Fund to estimate the impact of the U.S. vaccine campaign. The future outlook, though is dismal among the unvaccinated, who make up the lion’s share of new Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths. In Texas, where barely more than half of eligible residents are fully inoculated, preliminary data shared by health officials reflect that 99.5 percent of the state’s Covid-19 deaths between early February and Wednesday were among the unvaccinated. Only 43 of 8,787 deaths were people who had been fully vaccinated.

The difference in health outcomes between the vaccinated and unvaccinated is an undeniable testament to vaccine efficacy. However, Covid-19 in the U.S. is overshadowed by another pandemic, one of misinformation and mistrust. This dangerous contagion – divided sharply along political lines – leads normally-rational people to deny facts, disbelieve data and decry actual science in the face of a deadly virus. 

More than half of 1,500 U.S. adults surveyed who said they will not get vaccinated believe the government is using the vaccine to implant microchips, and 85 percent believe the virus has been exaggerated for political reasons, according to an Economist/YouGov poll. Reuters and multiple news outlets have debunked multiple iterations of the microchip story, including the May claim that came with an attached photo of a microchip being developed by Columbia University, which is not yet ready for human use and has no connection to vaccines.

Nearly 30 percent of people who said they do not plan to get vaccinated identify as Republican, and Independents accounted for another 23 percent. The survey found 78 percent of Democrats said they had completed the vaccine series, versus half of Republicans and 53 percent of Independents.

How people of different political views perceive the virus and vaccine safety is reflected in and generated by the tone of their media sources and political leadership. As Media Matters delves into here and here, right-wing media plays a significant role in the proliferation of anti-vaccination rhetoric, closely aligning with messages from Republican politicians. In a two-week look at Fox News segments on vaccination between June 28 and July 11, anti-vaccination messaging was present nearly 60 percent of the time. 

Last Sunday, the Gateway Pundit claimed in a false headline that “For Second Week in a Row: More COVID-19 Vaccination Deaths than COVID-19 Deaths in the US…” Snopes explained the claim is fueled by misreporting figures of alleged self-reported adverse events following vaccination as a death toll, which is a blatant lie.   

Like so many outlets that spread misinformation, Gateway Pundit and others loyal to the former president appeal primarily to Republicans. Donald Trump is quick to assume credit for Operation Warp Speed, though he was and remains a chief source of Covid-19 misinformation and pushback on basic health guidelines. Essentially, outlets that spread false or negative information about vaccines and mask use echo and cater to Trump, drawing in loyal Trump voters. The consequences of misinformation and dangerous messaging are playing out in real time on a dangerous and deadly stage.

Below, in addition to showing current Covid-19 data in the U.S., California and the nine-county Bay Area, we’ve also gathered 2020 presidential election results for each of those areas. While imperfect, the comparison between the percentage of Trump voters in 2020 and the percentage of unvaccinated residents in each area is striking, as is how often the percentage of President Joe Biden voters aligns with the share of fully-vaccinated residents.   

By looking at California, and particularly the Bay Area, we can see that recent political influence has wormed its way into our local health outcomes as much as it has in traditionally red states like Texas.

U.S.

  • Confirmed Cases: 34,440,980
  • Deaths: 610,887
  • Fully Vaccinated: 57.4%
  • Partially Vaccinated: 66.4%
  • Unvaccinated: 33.6%

Source: John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center COVID-19 global tracking tool and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of 4:21 p.m. Sunday, July 25.

Political marker: November 2020 elections results show that Biden won 51.3 percent and Trump won 46.8 percent of the country’s vote. 

In just the six weeks between June 14 and Sunday, the number of people admitted to inpatient hospital beds for Covid-19 treatment increased by more than 80 percent.

California

  • Total Confirmed Cases: 3,903,443
  • Cumulative case increase since June 15: 5.6%
  • Covid-19 hospitalizations: 3,131/654  
  • Total Deaths: 64,231
  • Deaths since June 15: 1,716  
  • Fully Vaccinated: 62%
  • Partially Vaccinated: 71.3%
  • Unvaccinated: 28.7%

Source: John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center and California Department of Public Health with data pulled at 4:21 p.m. Sunday, July 25, 2021. 

Political marker: November 2020 elections results show that Biden won 63.5 percent and Trump won 34.3 percent of the county’s vote.

Alameda County

  • Total Confirmed Cases: 94,736
  • Cumulative case increase since June 15: 5.9%
  • Covid-19 hospitalizations/ICU: 127/34  
  • Total Deaths: 1,272
  • Deaths since June 15: 1 
  • Fully Vaccinated: 71.1%
  • Partially Vaccinated: 83.8%
  • Unvaccinated: 16.2%

Source: Alameda County Public Health Department with data pulled Sunday, July 25. 

Political marker: November 2020 elections results show that Biden won 79.8 percent and Trump won 17.6 percent of the county’s vote. 

Contra Costa County

  • Total Confirmed Cases: 74,985
  • Cumulative case increase since June 15: 6.5%  
  • Hospitalizations/ICU: 82/19
  • Total Deaths: 828
  • Deaths since June 15: 8 
  • Fully Vaccinated: 75.3%
  • Partially Vaccinated: 81%
  • Unvaccinated: 19%

Source: Contra Costa Health Services with data pulled Sunday, July 25.

Political marker: November 2020 elections results show that Biden won 71.63 percent and Trump won 26.3 percent of the county’s vote. 

Marin County*

  • Total Confirmed Cases: 15,135
  • Cumulative case increase since June 15: 6.7% 
  • Hospitalizations/ICU: 7/1
  • Total Deaths: 214
  • Deaths since June 15: 1  
  • Fully Vaccinated: 85.6%
  • Partially Vaccinated: 92.8%
  • Unvaccinated: 7.2%

Source: Marin Health and Human Services with data pulled Sunday, July 25. 

Political marker: November 2020 elections results show that Biden won 82.32 percent and Trump won 15.79 percent of the county’s vote. 

*San Quentin State Prison, the site of a major Covid-19 outbreak in July 2020, reported cases and deaths separately from Marin County. The facility confirmed a total of 2,241 cases and reported a resulting 28 deaths among the prison population. Another 459 prison staff members also tested positive — staff deaths were recorded within their county of residence. We’ve included the population and staff cases. as well as population deaths in Marin County totals above. Source: CDCR data as of Sunday, July 25.

Napa County

  • Total Confirmed Cases: 10,293
  • Cumulative case increase since June 15: 3%  
  • Hospitalizations/ICU: 3
  • Total Deaths: 84
  • Deaths since June 15: 1 
  • Fully Vaccinated: 73%
  • Partially Vaccinated: 78%
  • Unvaccinated: 22%

Source: Department of Health and Human Services with data pulled Friday, July 23.  

Political marker: November 2020 elections results show that Biden won 69 percent and Trump won 28.7 percent of the county’s vote. 

San Francisco

  • Total Confirmed Cases: 39,031
  • Cumulative case increase since June 15: 5.8% 
  • Hospitalizations/ICU: 45/15
  • Total Deaths: 561
  • Deaths since June 15: 3  
  • Fully Vaccinated: 76%
  • Partially Vaccinated: 83%
  • Unvaccinated: 17%

Source: San Francisco Department of Public Health with data pulled Sunday, July 25.

Political marker: November 2020 elections results show that Biden won 85.3 percent and Trump won 12.7 percent of the county’s vote.

San Mateo County

  • Total Confirmed Cases: 43,676
  • Cumulative case increase since June 15: 3.3% 
  • Hospitalizations/ICU: 20/6
  • Total Deaths: 588
  • Deaths since June 15: 3 
  • Fully Vaccinated: 78.9%
  • Partially Vaccinated: 88.6%
  • Unvaccinated: 11.4%

Source: San Mateo County Health Department with data pulled Friday, July 23, 2021. Death count since June 15 sourced from Covid Act Now, as the county does not make the daily number readily available. 

Political marker: November 2020 elections results show that Biden won 77.9 percent and Trump won 20.2 percent of the county’s vote.

Santa Clara County

  • Total Confirmed Cases: 121,767
  • Cumulative case increase since June 15: 1.9% 
  • Hospitalizations/ICU: 88/17
  • Total Deaths: 1,707
  • Deaths since June 15: 4 
  • Fully Vaccinated: 77.3%
  • Partially Vaccinated: 83.4%
  • Unvaccinated: 16.6%

Source: Santa Clara County Public Health Department with data pulled Friday, July 23. 

Political marker: November 2020 elections results show that Biden won 72.6 percent and Trump won 25.23 percent of the county’s vote.

Solano County

  • Total Confirmed Cases: 35,193
  • Cumulative case increase since June 15: 4.6% 
  • Hospitalizations/ICU: 43/7
  • Total Deaths: 245
  • Deaths since June 15: 1 
  • Fully Vaccinated: 57%
  • Partially Vaccinated: 69%
  • Unvaccinated: 31%

Source: Solano Public Health with data puled Sunday, July 25.

Political marker: November 2020 elections results show that Biden won 57 percent and Trump won 33.7 percent of the county’s vote.

Sonoma County

  • Total Confirmed Cases: 32,196
  • Cumulative case increase since June 15: 4.9% 
  • Hospitalizations/ICU: 43/9 
  • Total Deaths: 329
  • Deaths since June 15: 13  
  • Fully Vaccinated: 70%
  • Partially Vaccinated: 78%
  • Unvaccinated: 22%

Source: County of Sonoma with data pulled Sunday, July 25.

Political marker: November 2020 elections results show that Biden won 74.5 percent and Trump won 23 percent of the county’s vote.

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