Jul 24, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Study: Republican deaths in Florida, Ohio linked to COVID vaccine politics

A protester holds an anti-vaccination sign as supporters of President Donald Trump rally to reopen California as the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen, on May 16, 2020 in Woodland Hills, California.

A protester holds an anti-vaccination sign as supporters of then-President Trump rally to reopen California during pandemic restrictions in Woodland Hills, California, in May 2020. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

Registered Republicans experienced a "significantly higher" rate of excess deaths than Democrats in Florida and Ohio in the months after COVID-19 vaccines were made widely available, a new study has found.

Why it matters: The Yale researchers note in their study, published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine Monday, the findings "suggest that well-documented 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."

  • The study builds on growing evidence suggesting that a person's political leanings could have been a COVID risk factor.

What they did: Researchers examined 538,159 deaths in individuals aged 25 years and older in Florida and Ohio from March 2020 to December 2021.

  • Political party affiliation in Ohio was defined by whether an individual voted in a party's primary election within the preceding two calendar years. In Florida, it was based on party registration.

Of note: Researchers found the differences were concentrated in counties with lower vaccination rates, and primarily noted in voters who live in Ohio.

  • Party affiliation only became a substantial factor after vaccines were made available to all adults in the U.S., with the gap in excess deaths between Republicans and Democrats concentrated in places with low vaccination rates.
A screenshot of a JAMA Internal Medicine tweet, saying: "In 2020 & 2021, excess death rates for Republican voters were 4.6 pp larger than for Democratic voters in Florida + Ohio. After vaccines were widely available, that gap grew from 1.0 to 9.4 pp, with the largest gap in counties with low #COVID19 vax rates."
Photo: JAMA Internal Medicine/X

By the numbers: After May 1, 2021, when vaccines were available to all adults, researchers found the excess death rate gap between Republican and Democratic voters widened from a percentage point of −0.9 to 7.7 percentage points.

  • That meant the excess death rate among Republican voters was 43% higher than that among Democratic voters.

Yes, but: The researchers emphasize that the study has limitations including that they did not examine causes of death nor individual vaccination status.

  • They noted their research was based on data from only Florida and Ohio, so the "results may not generalize to other states."

The big picture: President Biden has clashed with some skeptical Republican governors and GOP Congress members over his pandemic policies, notably mandating COVID vaccinations.

  • Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has become increasingly outspoken on public health measures. In May, he signed "medical freedom" measures into law — including bans on mask and vaccine mandates.

Zoom out: A study from the University of Maryland and University of California at Irvine that was published in the journal Health Affairs last year found that Republican counties experienced 72.94 more COVID deaths per 100,000 people compared to Democratic counties through Oct. 31, 2021.

  • COVID vaccine uptake explained about 10% of the difference in mortality between red and blue counties.

Meanwhile, a nationwide University of South Florida survey of 2,500 American adults that was published in March showed that 49% of Republicans were "very" or "somewhat confident" about the safety of COVID vaccines, compared to 88% of Democrats.

What they're saying: Yale study co-author Jacob Wallace said in a statement after the release of their working paper before the study was published that their findings told "a very sad story" about preventable deaths.

  • "It's possible that thousands of deaths that could have been averted," he said.

Separately, University of South Florida professor Stephen Neely, who led the USF study, told the Washington Post the Yale research underscored that a steep partisanship over how safe and effective COVID vaccines were had contributed to needless deaths.

  • "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," Neely added.

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