A redder COVID is showing up in death rates across the US. Here’s what’s happening in NC


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — When the COVID-19 delta variant surged across our state in the late summer, the gap between North Carolina’s reddest and bluest counties got even wider.

In October, the per capita death rate in the state’s counties that voted heavily for Donald Trump was nearly three times higher than in those places that went just as heavily for Joe Biden, a CBS17.com data analysis found.

“It became a deeply polarized topic, vaccination especially so,” said Dr. Noel Brewer, a professor of health behavior at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. “It’s unfortunate, and it’s been damaging to public health.”

Those findings generally resemble those from a New York Times report this week that found the gap in the death toll between red and blue America was growing quickly.

With one slight difference: In North Carolina, the gap was actually larger in September, the deadliest month of the delta surge in the state with nearly 2,000 deaths reported.

The state has 51 counties where Trump received at least 60 percent of votes in the 2020 presidential election. 

Nearly 30 of every 100,000 people in those counties died from COVID — nearly four times as many as the eight of every 100,000 people in the 11 counties where Biden received at least that share of votes.

The gap became slightly smaller in October, when the death rate in North Carolina’s reddest counties was 16.1 — nearly three times as large as the 5.5 in the bluest counties.

“It sort of fits with the way we see American life these days, more and more in political terms — even regarding matters like this, which seem completely unrelated to politics,” North Carolina State University political science professor Andrew Taylor said.

RTI International epidemiologist Dr. Pia MacDonald says there could be more factors at play, from poverty level to access to health care.

“I think it’s a more complicated story than just saying it’s a factor of red and blue,” she said.

CBS 17 last month reported on a study that found the strongest predictor of a county’s vaccination rate was its choice for president in last year’s election.

Now that connection is showing up in the death rates.

“The vaccine does prevent death,” Brewer said. “That’s the main benefit.”

A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 39 percent of Republicans still have not been vaccinated compared to 10 percent of Democrats.

But that also means more than half of the respondents in both parties have gotten at least one shot — and that’s a sign that the gap could be closing, Brewer said.

“And as a result, we now have a norm. So vaccination is now the norm all across America, and that norm will gather speed and momentum over time. So this is a problem that will start to solve itself over time.”

The key to accelerating the closing of that gap, Brewer said, is “to have people who are from inside these communities speaking.

“We need to have someone from Robeson (County) talking to people from Robeson County, and we need to have someone from Forsyth County talking to someone from Forsyth,” he said. “We also need to have people from within these political parties speaking. You’re not going to have Nancy Pelosi saying anything that’s going to reach out to someone on the right. And the same thing — Mitch McConnell’s words mean nothing to people on the left. 

“So we have to have people from within their parties speaking publicly, loudly and frequently endorsing the vaccine,” he added. “This is a problem that can be solved within our own communities, both geographic communities in ideological communities.”

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