As of Thursday, Civiqs showed 41% of Republicans saying that they would definitely not accept a COVID-19 vaccine, while another 10% remain unsure. With the remaining Republicans saying they will accept the vaccine down to just 18%, red states are starting to see a problem that the rest of the nation would love to have—a vaccine surplus. As The New York Times reports, Mississippi alone is now sitting on tens of thousands of doses that they’re having a hard time giving out.
With just 25% of adults vaccinated, Mississippi is lagging well behind most of the nation when it comes to vaccinating its citizens. But that’s not because of a lack of vaccine. The state voted 58% for Donald Trump in 2020. If that number accurately reflects those Mississippians who consider themselves Republicans, that’s 23% of the state either giving a definite “no” to the vaccine. Add in the small percentage of Democrats and independents who are shunning the vaccine, subtract the percentage already vaccinated, and all those doses in Mississippi are rolling around the state, looking for the less than half the population willing to take a jab.
Mississippi may be ahead of the pack when it comes to opening vaccines to everyone and still having trouble giving away shots, but it’s not alone. Other states across the south—particularly Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Tennessee—are also showing low rates of vaccination, in part because of vaccine that has gone unused at events in heavily Republican areas. Governors in Ohio and Oklahoma have also warned that they’re having trouble finding takers for vaccine.
As weeks go on and Republicans’ anti-science position keeps them from accepting the vaccine, not only is it a threat to effectively getting vaccine to those who want it, but the sheer number of unvaccinated Republicans may mean that the nation cannot reach levels required for herd immunity, no matter how much vaccine is rolled out.
Over a month ago, a vaccination at a rural county in Missouri saw 1,500 doses of vaccine go unused. That county went for Donald Trump by 84%. It wasn’t a singular event. Of 2,000 doses sent to another event, only 648 were used. At least four mass vaccination events run by the Missouri National Guard in rural areas had hundreds of unused doses. At the same time, urban areas like St. Louis were seeing hundreds of applications for every dose of vaccine that became available.
Urban areas in St. Louis and Kansas City were getting less doses per population than rural areas, in part because state officials made assumptions that Black populations in those cities would be reluctant to accept the vaccine. Similar assumptions were made in Atlanta, where officials deliberately reduced allocations on the assumption that Black communities would reject the vaccine. Nationwide, Black and Latinx communities are still being shortchanged when it comes to doses of COVID-19 vaccine.
However, actual polling data—along with on the ground experience—shows that Black acceptance of the vaccine is actually much higher than in white communities. Eventually, both Gov. Mike Parson in Missouri and Gov. Brian Kemp in Georgia were forced to admit that demand was actually higher in urban areas with a higher Black population, but not until after thousands of doses of vaccine had gone unused at a time when the rising count of cases and new, fast-spreading variants threatened a “fourth wave” of cases. On Thursday, WorldOMeters logged over 80,000 new cases in the U.S. for the first time since February.
The 33.7% of Americans who have so far received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine is definitely not enough to make a noticeable dent in the rate of transmission, and even had hundreds of thousands of doses of vaccines been delivered to areas of high demand sooner, it wouldn’t have made much difference in terms of the nation. However, it certainly would have made a difference to the hundreds of thousands who have been exposed to risk due to poor assumptions, and poor decisions, about vaccine demand.
At this point, only 18% of Republicans say “yes” they still want COVID-19 vaccine. In just over a month, the United States is likely to be in the position of a vaccine surplus. It’s an enviable position (as well as one that ethically demands the U.S. send vaccine to less privileged nations). We’re not there yet.
There has been some assumption that Republicans, while saying they didn’t want the vaccine, would quietly take it anyway. That’s not happening. Instead, actions being taken by Republican governors to completely reopen states like Mississippi, Florida, Texas, and Georgia is sending a highly visible signal that the vaccine simply isn’t needed. Because everything is fine. Meanwhile, when Republican governors like Florida’s Ron DeSantis have gotten vaccinated, they done so quietly. Almost secretly. Out of the public eye and without a single announcement.
Add in social media conspiracy theories ranging from standard anti-vax complaints to Bill Gates-centered Q-sense, and whatever pressure to get vaccinated Republicans might feel to get vaccinated is being easily countered. The rate of Republicans saying they want to get vaccinated has barely waved since before the first vaccine became available last year.
In the past, there’s been a tendency to point to anti-vax sentiments as something that afflicts the left, and some pundits are still making that assumption today. But really, that has not been the case for some time. At this point, Republicans are an astounding ten times more likely to say no to something that should be completely apolitical. It’s a marker of just how deeply an opposition to basic science and medical facts has become integral to the whole Republican identity.
Overall, 21% of Americans say they won’t get the vaccine, while another 8% are unsure. If everyone else gets vaccinated—adults and children—that should be just enough to get the nation to something approaching herd immunity. But it will be close, especially considering the increased contagiousness of recent variants. Republicans aren’t done threatening the nation’s health when it comes to COVID-19.
A vaccine hero
While Republican vaccine rejection may be both frustrating and worrisome, The New York Times also contains a wonderful story when it comes to COVID-19 and those awesomely effective vaccines. That’s because they have an article focusing on University of Pennsylvania researcher Dr. Katalin Kariko. The 66-year-old grew up in Hungary, migrated to the U.S., then, like way too many women in science, she found herself eternally exiled to the ragged edge of research.
Year after year, Dr. Kariko was forced to seek a new position working for one of the more established scientists in control of Penn’s labs. She found those positions, but it was never a sure thing. And as she bounced from one project to another, she has never made more than $60,000 a year.
But through it all, Dr. Kariko had a steady obsession: Messenger RNA. She was convinced that mRNA technology provided infinite possibilities. She just had trouble convincing those men who controlled the labs, and who had their own, less radical, projects to push. Every time she found someone who made a great partner for her ideas, it seemed they were just a few years from either retiring or moving on to a job elsewhere, leaving her to start over again and again.
It took decades before she paired with Dr. Drew Weissman on the idea of using mRNA in vaccines. Specifically, in an HIV vaccine. At long last, that research is showing spectacular results. MRNA vaccine are also going into the arms of billions around the world in the forms of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.
“My dream was always that we develop something in the lab that helps people,” said Dr. Weissman. “I’ve satisfied my life’s dream.”
Dr. Kariko celebrated the news about the efficacy of mRNA vaccines by eating a box of chocolate-covered peanuts. Then she got back to work.