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Healthcare workers attend to an unvaccinated 45-year-old Covid-19 patient

Healthcare workers attend to an unvaccinated 45-year-old Covid-19 patient at the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center in Tarzana, California on September 2, 2021. (Photo: Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images)

Partisan Gap in Covid Deaths Growing Thanks to Right-Wing Vaccine Disinformation

The fact that heavily Trump counties had over three times more Covid-19 deaths in October than heavily Biden counties shows that "anti-science aggression on the right has had deadly consequences," said one epidemiologist.

Kenny Stancil

Last month in the United States, the per-capita rate at which people died of Covid-19 was more than three times higher in counties where former President Donald Trump won at least 60% of the vote compared with counties that President Joe Biden won by a similar margin—evidence, one public health expert said Monday, of the "deadly consequences" of "anti-science aggression on the right."

"Irrational fears about vaccine side effects have overwhelmed rational fears about a deadly virus."

A new analysis published Monday by the New York Times found that the partisan gap in Covid-19 deaths, which has been widening for five consecutive months, grew faster in October than at any previous point.

The variation in Covid-19 mortality between heavily Trump counties and heavily Biden counties can be attributed to stark partisan differences in the uptake of vaccines, which are highly effective at preventing hospitalization and death in patients infected with the coronavirus. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), nearly 40% of Republican adults remain unvaccinated, compared with just 10% of Democratic adults.

"Anti-science aggression on the right has had deadly consequences," tweeted Dr. Gavin Yamey, director of Duke University's Center for Policy Impact in Global Health. "Tune into Fox on any day and you'll see horrendous anti-vaxx nonsense."

John Whitehouse, news director at Media Matters for America, pointed out that even as Covid-19 deaths have hit predominantly Republican areas harder in 2021, "this is not newsworthy in right-wing media."

The partisan gap in Covid-19 deaths worsens as support for Trump increases: "Counties where Trump received at least 70% of the vote have an even higher average Covid death toll than counties where Trump won at least 60%," the Times reported.

"As a result," the newspaper noted, "Covid deaths have been concentrated in counties outside of major metropolitan areas. Many of these are in red states, while others are in red parts of blue or purple states, like Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Virginia, and even California."

partisan gap in covid deaths

"This situation is a tragedy," the newspaper added, "in which irrational fears about vaccine side effects have overwhelmed rational fears about a deadly virus. It stems from disinformation—promoted by right-wing media, like Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, the Sinclair Broadcast Group, and online sources—that preys on the distrust that results from stagnant living standards."

The Times analysis coincided with the release of the KFF's latest Covid-19 Vaccine Monitor poll, which shows that misinformation about the pandemic has spread at about the same pace as the virus itself, helped along by right-wing news outlets and social media.

"It stems from disinformation—promoted by right-wing media—that preys on the distrust that results from stagnant living standards."

According to KFF, 78% of survey respondents said they had heard at least one of the false statements presented by researchers and that they either believed it or weren't sure whether it was true or untrue.

KFF noted that people were more likely to believe lies about the pandemic—including that the government is exaggerating the number of Covid-19 deaths or covering up deaths due to Covid-19 vaccines—if they relied on right-wing news sources including Newsmax, One America News (OAN), and Fox News.

Among respondents who trusted Newsmax to report accurately on the pandemic, nearly half of them believed at least one of the false statements presented by researchers, and more than one-third of OAN and Fox News viewers each believed at least some of the misinformation.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites have also played a role in the proliferation of misinformation. NPR found earlier this year that on nearly half of the days in 2021 up until March, stories about people dying after receiving a Covid-19 vaccine were among the most popular vaccine-related articles on social media.

Some conservative writers have tried to argue that the partisan gap in Covid-19 deaths "may stem from regional differences in weather or age, but those arguments fall apart under scrutiny," the Times noted. "If weather or age were a major reason, the pattern would have begun to appear last year."

Per-capita rates of Covid-19 cases and deaths were slightly higher in states led by GOP governors by the end of 2020, but the mortality gap between heavily Trump counties and heavily Biden counties surged in 2021—after vaccines became widely available, and as hostility to vaccination among Republican voters, fueled by right-wing disinformation, became increasingly common.

The Biden administration's attempt to require workers at companies with at least 100 employees to be vaccinated against Covid-19 or tested weekly is currently facing legal challenges from several GOP-led states.

It remains to be seen whether Americans' willingness to take lifesaving antiviral treatments from Pfizer and Merck will be shaped by the same forces that turned inoculation into a partisan issue.

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