Friday, May 7, 2021
May 7, 2021

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Westneat: Rural areas in no mood to join herd

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Ever since early February, when some software volunteers debuted a website to help the public find COVID-19 vaccine appointments, they’ve had a unique window into the ebb and flow of what one engineer there dubbed “the spice.”

Who wants the vaccines, and who doesn’t? Where in the state are the shots snapped right up, and where are they left wanting? They noticed one major trend right from the start.

“Once you start driving east from Seattle, for a few hours, you can find vaccine easily and readily available,” says Jessica Chong, a University of Washington assistant professor of genetics who is volunteering as a data scientist for the WA COVID Vaccine Finder, at covidwa.com.

This regional disparity in vaccine thirst was a curiosity at first, but now has become cause for concern. The 10 counties with the lowest vaccination rates have all seen 22 percent or fewer of their residents get the first shot so far – with nine of those 10 being red counties east of the Cascades. That compares to 31 percent of the state starting the vaccination shots.

Why does this matter? Because public health officials say to reach herd immunity, to the point that life could return to a semblance of normal, 70 percent to 80 percent of state residents need to be immune. In Eastern Washington in particular, segments of society appear to be in no mood to be a part of any herd.

“Government can kiss my ass,” posted the Franklin County Republican Central Committee, on the topic of getting vaccinated. This was on the official Facebook page of the county’s GOP organization.

Chong, the covidwa.com data scientist, said there are many reasons counties could have varied vaccination rates, such as age demographics, language barriers and driving distance to vaccination sites. But with appointments going unused in more rural counties, it can’t be vaccine scarcity anymore.

“This has been studied, though,” she added. “The No. 1 correlating factor for whether you’ll get the vaccine is whether you voted for Trump.”

A new survey for the Economist found that among these “vaccine rejecters,” more continue to trust Trump for sound medical advice than trust the CDC or Dr. Anthony Fauci. Trump did get vaccinated himself in January, but a majority of GOP voters told pollsters they hadn’t heard about that.

“Without vaccine hesitancy, we’d be in really good shape,” Carl Bergstrom, a UW evolutionary biologist, said in a commentary on herd immunity. “With vaccine hesitancy, it could be close here in the U.S. I’m hoping that much of the hesitancy we see is really more like … vaccine deliberation.”

Hope so, too. It’s perfectly understandable that people would be leery, or in “wait and see” mode. The data cited above suggests something else may be going on, though – something familiar and cultural that’s plagued us with the coronavirus from the start. Which is that America may be too tribal and rebellious to get to where 80 percent of us ever agree to do anything.

It was nearly a year ago that Clint Didier, Franklin County commissioner and local GOP chairman, suggested we go for herd immunity the old-fashioned way. “We can take care of this virus by letting the people catch it,” he said.

Even with a medicine available, it seems like in some quarters that’s still the plan.

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