Aug 23, 2022 - News

The political right is shaping vaccine rejection in Utah

A chart shows school vaccine exemptions rising across Utah.

Chart courtesy of the Utah Department of Health.

Vaccine rejection appears to be rising particularly sharply in conservative parts of Utah, according to an Axios analysis of the state's preliminary immunization waiver data.

State of play: The rise in waiver requests last year didn't occur evenly throughout the state, according to data from schools that reported in 2020 and 2021.

  • Zip code data show communities where waiver rates rose above 5% between 2020 and 2021 are overwhelmingly in areas that lean Republican.
  • Vaccine waiver rates more than doubled in six counties, all of which Donald Trump won in 2020 — five of them with more than 65% of the vote.

Zoom in: In southwest Utah, the area with the highest waiver rate, 20 schools had waivers for fewer than 5% of kindergarteners when school began in 2020. That number dropped to seven schools in 2021.

  • In Utah County, the share of schools with waiver rates over 5% grew nearly 60% from 2020 to 2021.
  • In central Utah, two-thirds of schools reported waiver rates over 5% in 2021. In 2020, fewer than half the schools had waiver rates that high.

The intrigue: Fewer than a third of Salt Lake County schools reported waiver rates of more than 5%.

The big picture: Anti-vax sentiments — previously considered mostly the territory of liberal, "crunchy" parents — found a lot of fuel on the right amid hostility toward COVID prevention measures.

  • Republicans now are far more critical of vaccine requirements, according to polling by YouGov and reporting by The Washington Post.
  • Opposition to vaccines is increasingly seen as a mark of conservative loyalty, according to reports by NPR.

Between the lines: There are exceptions. Of Utah's 13 local health districts, waiver rates grew the least in the heavily-conservative Bear River District of northern Utah.

  • Yes, but: Rates there were largely kept low by schools in Logan (a politically moderate college town) and a sharp decline in waivers at one charter school focused on outdoor activities.

Meanwhile: Summit County for years had the state's highest rates of immunization waivers.

  • In 2021, exemption rates again grew faster than in most parts of Utah.
  • But this year the county's increase was driven less by Park City — once an anti-vax hotspot — and more by waivers at schools in Kamas and Coalville, which are far more conservative.

The bottom line: Vaccine waivers don't correlate perfectly with an area's Republican lean, but the alignment is much more consistent than it was just a few years ago.

Go deeper: School waiver vaccines are skyrocketing in Utah


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