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Red vs. Blue. vs. COVID? It’s not a simple question

In theory, disease is non-political, something that hits you, or doesn’t, based on factors that have nothing to do with which president you love or hate.

In reality, coronavirus is about as political as political gets.

Masks, lockdowns, school closings – all have become red vs. blue issues. While polling shows that most people, Democrats and Republicans alike, support efforts to thwart the pandemic, polls also show that the people who do hate those health measures are far more likely to identify as Republican than as Democrat.

That political divide is starting to play out in lower vaccine rates – and higher death rates – within conservative communities. That’s true nationally. That’s true among states. That’s even true when you look at counties.

But it isn’t true in Orange County, at least not when comparing cities by their political lean and how they’re faring against coronavirus.

Though there is no data on the political views of people who have tested positive or died of COVID-19, a look at local health statistics, voter registration numbers and new Census data shows that when it comes to a convergence of politics and pandemic, Orange County cities are all over the map.

Some of the county’s most Republican leaning cities have some of the lowest COVID-19 death rates, while some of the county’s most Democrat leaning cities show the opposite. To complicate things, the reverse also can be found.

To some, all that statistical noise makes perfect sense.

“Why should politics have anything to do with the COVID?” asked Tanya Hernandez, a Santa Ana notary, when asked about how political leanings are playing out in some pandemic trends. Last year she voted for former President Donald Trump, but didn’t think that would make a difference in who gets sick.

“It’s a freaking disease.”

O.C. might be weird

On one hand, Hernandez is right.

Scientists and epidemiologists working on COVID-19 track the virus or health data, not politics. And experts from organizations as diverse as the World Health Organization and UC Irvine don’t mention party registration when talking about the non-health issues that drive coronavirus. Instead, they list such factors as type of employment, access to health care and housing density.

And those last factors, not politics, have been evident in Orange County since the start of the pandemic.

Last year, COVID-19 infection and death rates were high in Santa Ana and Anaheim, big cities where lots of people share homes and where many workers hold jobs that can’t be done at home. Both cities also voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump by huge margins.

Conversely, in some of the county’s higher income cities – Laguna Beach, Newport Beach and Irvine, where people typically don’t share a dwelling and many workers could ride out the pandemic in their living room – the numbers were better.  The politics among those cities are mixed.

But since vaccine shots became available, about 11 months ago, the pandemic has changed – at least in communities that embrace them. It’s also turned a new data point, “vaccination rate,” into shorthand for how well a community is faring against the disease. Simply put, more shots mean fewer deaths. When President Biden and others in the administration recently started to refer to the pandemic as “a disease of the unvaccinated,” they were basing that slogan on data.

Six of the 10 states with the highest COVID-19 death rates also rank in the bottom 10 in vaccination rates, and the four others are well below the national average, according to tracking by the Mayo Clinic and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Polls taken this summer, one by Kaiser Family Foundation and another from Gallup, found that while majorities in both political parties welcome vaccines and support at least some mask mandates, only 56% of qualified Republicans said they had been vaccinated, compared with 92% of Democrats and 68% of people with no party preference. And as of Nov. 12, federal data show that nine of the 10 states with the lowest vaccination rates voted for Trump in the last election.

But in Orange County, any red vs. blue vaccine divide has been subtle to nonexistent.

For example, in tiny Villa Park, 52.8% of all voters are registered as Republicans, which is the highest GOP registration rate of any city in Orange County. But as of Nov. 12, Villa Park also had a vaccination rate of 70%, in line with the county average of 69%.

In bigger Santa Ana, the county’s most Democrat-leaning community (52.7% of registered voters in the city are Democrats), the vaccination rate is 67%, a tick under the county average.

Or consider this: The city with the county’s lowest vaccination rate (55%), San Clemente, also happens to be one of the most Republican leaning. But the city with the second lowest vaccination rate, Costa Mesa (61%), leans blue by about 4.5 points.

What’s next?

Or maybe the question is being asked too early.

Recent health data, nationally, points to the politics of coronavirus becoming a bigger deal, health-wise.

The Kaiser Family Foundation is tracking vaccination rates in U.S. counties based on each county’s political lean. In April, Kaiser reported the vaccination rate in counties won by Biden in 2020 was about 2.2% higher than it was in counties that voted for Trump. By September the gap had grown to 12.9%.

And, again, vaccination rates can mean life and death.

The New York Times reported this month that in October, the COVID-19 death rate in counties that voted for Trump was about three times higher than the death rate in Biden-voting counties – and that the trend had been growing for at least five months.

To date, this hasn’t played out in Orange County cities.

For example, two cities with some of the county’s highest COVID-19 death rates, Seal Beach and Santa Ana, aren’t alike politically. That’s also true of two cities with some of the lowest death rates, liberal Irvine and conservative Rancho Santa Margarita.

It’s unclear if that will hold. In September, when Gallup asked Americans if they were vaccinated, it also asked those who were not if they eventually planned to get a shot. In that survey, 3% of Democrats and 26% of the no party types said they would not. But a full 40% of Republicans said no.

Hernandez said she isn’t vaccinated and has no plans to change that.

“I’ve had (COVID-19). Twice,” she said. “I’ve survived it. My immunity is strong. So I’m not going to take the chance on the shot.”

Source: Orange County Register

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