This past Thursday, Bloomberg published an article showing vaccine information from the new data tracker website at the CDC. It’s an interesting article, showing that there are hundreds of counties in the United States where the rate of vaccination is less than 25% of the population. Not only is that number far too low to represent any sort of collective immunity, it’s so low that it effectively means that Covid-19 is unrestrained in these counties. The disease can still spread through these counties unrestricted, the rate of transmission essentially unaffected by this anemic rate of vaccination.
These counties, and low-vaccine communities in other counties, represent a genuine, ongoing, long-term threat to the nation. In these counties, so long as the vaccination rates remain low, Covid-19 will remain endemic. It will simmer and flare, create local outbreaks and die back to a low level, only to do it again. And as new variants appear, like the Delta variant which is now becoming dominant in many areas, these counties will provide both an incubator for these variants, and a test tube in which even more aggressive and destructive variants may appear.
But while Bloomberg’s article does a service in pointing out the widespread nature of low-vaccination areas, and giving some suggestion of the threat they represent, that same article is also an example of reporting so cowardly that it is actively harmful in its own right. Because, in the entire article, there is an abject refusal to acknowledge the source of vaccine hesitancy. Not only that, there is a misdirection so blatant, it’s hard to believe it’s not intentional.
Bloomberg blames low vaccination rates on “rural population and more people of color.” That’s not just nonsense, it’s dangerous nonsense.
The idea that vaccine hesitancy is highest among communities of color had been repeated over, and over, and over. It fits a convenient narrative, one that says Blacks are so fearful of government health care because of events like Tuskegee, that they will refuse that health care when it’s offered. That narrative has appeared repeatedly in reporting on Covid-19 vaccines.
In fact, according to Civiqs data, this was never true. While 25% of Black Americans said they would not be vaccinated in December when vaccines first appeared, 29% of white Americans gave the same answer. Over time, vaccine hesitancy dropped faster among Blacks and Latinos than among whites. Currently, only 10% of Blacks continue to say they will not take a vaccine, while the number of whites has barely budged at 27%. The number saying no to the vaccine among Latino Americans is just 15%.
People of color have never had more vaccine hesitancy than white Americans. But the unfounded assumption that Blacks would refuse the vaccine has already had consequences. In states like Georgia and Missouri, vaccines were first offered to predominantly white rural counties, and vaccine availability was delayed in cities like St. Louis or Atlanta. The idea that Blacks would refuse the vaccine anyway was used to justify those decisions.
Continuing to push this fallacy at this point presents a new threat. Because low vaccination rates will continue to generate Covid-19 cases. Even though there has been an enormous fall in the number of cases since the January peaks, since the beginning of June cases in the U.S. have been essentially flat. In some counties, there has actually been a flare up in the last three weeks that has driven case counts, hospitalizations, and ICU use to record levels.
Putnam County in Missouri became semi-famous back in early March when a planned mass vaccination event fizzled out and thousands of vaccine doses went unused. At the same time, both Kansas City and St. Louis were begging for vaccine, but no mass vaccination events were planned there. Now Putnam County has a overall vaccination rate of just 26% and new case rate of 47 people per 100,000. St. Louis and Kansas City both have vaccination rates over 40% and new case rates below 6 per 100,000.
The reason for this is not that Putnam County is rural. Or that it has a high level of people of color (it does not). The reason can be stated in one word: Republicans.
That word doesn’t appear in Bloomberg’s article. But there is no other demographic factor that comes close to matching the rates of vaccine hesitancy. Republicans have rejected the vaccine from the outset, and they are doing so still.
Likewise, then it comes to counties where vaccination rates are extremely high, there’s a single demographic factor that can account for this fact.
In leaving out this factor, Bloomberg isn’t making their article nonpartisan; they’re making it inaccurate. Worse, they are continuing a false narrative that invites placing the blame for the continued presence of Covid-19, including hundreds of deaths each day, on people of color. Right now 74% of Blacks say they have been vaccinated and another 9% say they will get vaccinated. And 72% of Latinos say they have been vaccinated and another 7% say they will get vaccinated. All of those numbers are far above the values for whites.
When America fails to achieve the target of hitting 70% of the nation vaccinated by July 4, as now seems likely, the blame will not lie with people of color. It will be white Americans pulling down the numbers. And the single demographic within white Americans that predicts who will refuse the vaccine is equally simple—are they Republicans. Refusing to admit that, is refusing to address the issue in a way that is either meaningful or honest.