Political divisions over vaccines may have caused “thousands” of unnecessary deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a new study, which found that registered Republicans in Ohio and Florida had a significantly higher excess death rate than Democrats—after vaccines became widely available.
Yale University researchers examined 538,159 deaths in people aged 25 and up in Florida and Ohio from March 2020 to December 2021. The study, published in the JAMA International Medicine journal on Monday, found that there was no significant difference in excess death rates between Republicans and Democrats until April 2021.
But starting on May 1, 2021, after vaccines were available to all adults, the excess death rate for Republican voters spiked dramatically, becoming 43 percent higher than the excess death rate for Democrats. The study found that differences in excess death rate were concentrated in counties with lower vaccination rates, and particularly among Ohio voters. (“Excess death” refers to the increase in the number of deaths compared to the pre-pandemic death rate.)
“The differences in excess mortality by political party affiliation after Covid-19 vaccines were available to all adults suggest that differences in vaccination attitudes and reported uptake between Republican and Democratic voters may have been a factor in the severity and trajectory of the pandemic in the U.S.,” the study said.
One of the researchers, Jacob Wallace, said the report shows a “very sad story.”
“It’s possible that thousands of deaths … could have been averted,” said Wallace, an assistant professor of public health at Yale.
The researchers warned that there could easily be other factors than political affiliation that contributed to the excess mortality rate, such as underlying medical conditions, socioeconomic status, or health insurance coverage. They noted that they had to use county vaccination status, not individual vaccination status, and they only had data from Florida and Ohio that did not include cause of death. “Hence, our results may not generalize to other states,” they said.
But their work is just the latest study to indicate that Republicans may have caused preventable deaths through their irresponsible messaging on the dangers of vaccines or the inefficacy of public health restrictions such as face masks and social distancing. A nationwide survey published in March by the University of South Florida found that only 49 percent of Republicans were confident that Covid vaccines are safe. In comparison, 88 percent of Democrats trusted the shots.
“It’s one of the most telling metrics I’ve seen in how the politicization of the pandemic has played out in the real world,” USF School of Public Affairs professor Stephen Neely, who conducted the March poll, told The Washington Post of the new study published Monday.
And the partisan vaccine skepticism isn’t going anywhere. Robert Kennedy Jr., a prominent anti-vaxxer, is running for president, and he’s fairly popular among Republicans. But what’s perhaps most troubling is that Covid vaccine divisions could affect vaccination rates for children, the people who need that protection the most.
“All of us in vaccine policy are very concerned that the controversy and contentious atmosphere that has surrounded Covid vaccines—much of it along party lines—is going to have negative consequences for pediatric vaccination … in the years ahead,” said Jason Schwartz, another researcher on the Yale study. “We’re already seeing indications to that effect.”