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COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy Goes Beyond Party Lines More to the Story Than Politics

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Above image credit: Syringes of COVID-19 vaccinations are filled during MU Health Care’s mass vaccination clinic at the Walsworth Family Columns Club at Faurot Field in Columbia on Feb. 4, 2021. (Courtesy | MU Health Care)
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3 minute read

While some pundits argue that party affiliation plays a role in low COVID-19 vaccination rates, experts say vaccine hesitancy goes beyond politics.

In Missouri, vaccination rates remain stubbornly low despite surging infections driven by the Delta variant of COVID-19. Becker’s Hospital Review ranks Missouri 39th out of the 50 states and the District of Columbia when it comes to vaccinations.

An analysis of available data suggests that, while political affiliation may be a factor, it isn’t necessarily predictive of vaccination rates in individual communities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) breaks down vaccination rates by county. When comparing vaccination rates collected on July 27 with data from Politico on 2020 presidential election results, it shows that the four counties in Missouri that voted for President Joe Biden are among the seven counties with the highest vaccination rates.

But St. Charles, Atchison and Platte counties have the third, fourth and fifth highest vaccination rates in Missouri, and all voted for Donald Trump in the last presidential election.

St. Louis and Boone counties, which boast the state’s highest vaccination rates, both voted for Biden. Even so, vaccination rates in those counties are still below 50%.

(Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Politico)

It’s important to note that these vaccination rates by county differ depending on where the data is coming from. For example, Pulaski County has one of the lowest vaccination rates, according to the data provided by the state, but is ranked 26th on the CDC data.

The Pulaski County Health Center said this disparity is because many of their vaccinations are from the Fort Leonard Wood military base located in the county, and the state data doesn’t include federal vaccinations in its data.

Robynn Kuhlmann is an associate professor of American politics and research methods at the University of Central Missouri. She recently wrote an essay about why vaccination rates are so low.

She said that while there is an argument that party affiliation and vaccination rates are related, hesitancy goes much deeper than that. Misinformation, isolation and poverty also play a role, and southern Missouri in particular has highly impoverished communities. She added that there are many individuals who are uninsured.

“It’s quite probable that those individuals aren’t getting the health care or contacts in health care that they trust,” Kuhlmann said.

She also noted that a large proportion of Black Americans distrust the vaccine due to a past history in medical experimentation. Additionally, many working people may worry about taking time off to get the vaccine or recover from its potential side effects.

“Different groups have different experiences, historical experiences, and different social and cultural experiences that should be taken into consideration when we’re thinking about trying to unify the vaccination effort,” Kuhlmann said.

Christopher Ave, director of communications for the St. Louis Department of Public Health, said the county is seeing distrust in the vaccine among many Black people as well as white conservatives.

“There’s a history in this country of some horrible experiences, particularly with people of color, involving the health care system,” Ave said. “We get that completely. So in addition to making vaccinations ever more convenient, ever more available, we also need to provide people the information, the data, the scientific knowledge that they deserve to make the best decision.”

The public health departments for Douglas and Reynolds counties, which have Missouri’s two lowest vaccination rates at 16% and 16.5% respectively, also credit misinformation as the main contributing factor to vaccine hesitancy.

Valerie Reese, administrator of the Douglas County Health Department, said a lot of the people who call in about the vaccine are concerned about the quickness in which the vaccine was developed and the long-term effects.

Frances Vermillion, administrator of Reynolds County Health Center, said she’s also heard people credit their concerns to issues like distrust of the government.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Reese said. “So it’s difficult to sort through all of that information sometimes to get to a place where you can make a good decision about the vaccine.”

Reese said that in August, the department will be putting out a myth busters campaign on social media to dispel some of that misinformation. Officials are also talking on the local radio station and contacting local businesses to do vaccination clinics on site.

Vermillion said she’s trying to mail informational fliers in bulk to every post office box in Reynolds County.

But both Reese and Vermillion said they’re starting to see an uptick in people wanting the vaccine due to the rise of the Delta variant.

“We’re starting to increase our positive rates again and people are starting to pay attention again to it maybe,” Vermillion said. “Maybe somebody in their family talked them into it … I just try to keep educating people on why it’s important, why it’s necessary.”

In order to further increase vaccination rates, Kuhlmann said it’s important not to point fingers toward a particular political party.

“I think discussing the partisan factor alone isn’t enough to create a larger discussion on how we can all do this collectively,” Kuhlmann said. “That really does set a line in the sand and curbs any further conversation that we should be having during this public health crisis.”

Marissa Plescia is a Dow Jones summer intern at Kansas City PBS.

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