The partisan gap in Covid’s death toll has grown faster over the past month than at any previous point.

By David Leonhardt

As 2020 wound down, there were good reasons to believe that the death toll during the pandemic’s first year might have been worse in red America. There were also good reasons to think it might have been worse in blue America.

Conservative areas tend to be older, less prosperous and more hostile to mask wearing, all of which can exacerbate the spread or severity of Covid-19. Liberal areas, for their part, are home both to more busy international airports and more Americans who suffer the health consequences of racial discrimination.

But it turned out that these differences largely offset each other in 2020 — or maybe they didn’t matter as much as some people assumed. Either way, the per capita death toll in blue America and red America was similar by the final weeks of 2020.

It was only a few percentage points higher in counties where Donald Trump had won at least 60 percent of the vote than in counties where Joe Biden crossed that threshold. In counties where neither candidate won 60 percent, the death toll was higher than in either Trump or Biden counties. There simply was not a strong partisan pattern to Covid during the first year that it was circulating in the U.S.

Then the vaccines arrived.

They proved so powerful, and the partisan attitudes toward them so different, that a gap in Covid’s death toll quickly emerged. I have covered that gap in two newsletters — one this summer, one last month — and today’s newsletter offers an update.

The brief version: The gap in Covid’s death toll between red and blue America has grown faster over the past month than at any previous point.

In October, 25 out of every 100,000 residents of heavily Trump counties died from Covid, more than three times higher than the rate in heavily Biden counties (7.8 per 100,000). October was the fifth consecutive month that the percentage gap between the death rates in Trump counties and Biden counties widened.

Data unavailable for Alaska and Washington, D.C.
Data unavailable for Alaska and Washington, D.C.Credit…Source: New York Times database, Edison Research

Some conservative writers have tried to claim that the gap may stem from regional differences in weather or age, but those arguments fall apart under scrutiny. (If weather or age were a major reason, the pattern would have begun to appear last year.) The true explanation is straightforward: The vaccines are remarkably effective at preventing severe Covid, and almost 40 percent of Republican adults remain unvaccinated, compared with about 10 percent of Democratic adults.

Charles Gaba, a Democratic health care analyst, has pointed out that the gap is also evident at finer gradations of political analysis: Counties where Trump received at least 70 percent of the vote have an even higher average Covid death toll than counties where Trump won at least 60 percent. (Look up your county.)

As a result, Covid deaths have been concentrated in counties outside of major metropolitan areas. Many of these are in red states, while others are in red parts of blue or purple states, like Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Virginia and even California.

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