Arizona's Vaccination Rate Is Below Average. GOP Politics May Play A Role
President Joe Biden set a goal that 70% of American adults would have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by the Fourth of July. Twenty states reached that target. Arizona fell short. And the state’s politics are likely playing a role in its vaccination efforts.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's map of state-by-state COVID-19 vaccination rates bears an uncanny resemblance to an election map. The states with the highest vaccination rates are Vermont, Massachusetts and Hawaii. The lowest are Mississippi, Louisiana and Wyoming.
“People’s attitudes toward the vaccine, including their intention for taking the vaccine, really differs depending on whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican," said Liz Hamel director of public opinion and survey research with the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Hamel points out Republican voters are not a monolithic group and millions of them have been vaccinated. But Kaiser Family Foundation polling shows more Democrats have gotten shots than their GOP neighbors. And nearly a quarter of Republicans say they will definitely not get the vaccine — 10 times the rate of Democrats who say that.
“The sense of risk that Republicans feel from the disease itself is lower than what Democrats are telling us they feel," Hamel said.
Arizona narrowly picked Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 election, but the state has long been considered a Republican stronghold. And the state’s vaccination rate is now below the national average. About 67% of U.S. adults over 18 have had at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the CDC. Only 62% of Arizona adults are vaccinated.
Within the state, the connection between votes and vaccines is apparent too.
Mohave County voters picked Donald Trump by the largest margin in Arizona in the 2020 election. Eight months later, just 36% of residents there are vaccinated, according to the CDC. Biden got the highest amount of support in Santa Cruz county, where now 83% of residents have had a shot.
“Early on, we framed this as a political choice," said Brian Castrucci, an epidemiologist and president of the de Beaumont Foundation.
Castrucci said political rhetoric has pitted individual freedoms against public health precautions since early in the pandemic, laying a challenging foundation for the vaccine rollout. This spring, his Maryland-based public health organization conducted nationwide surveys to better understand the specific concerns of Trump voters. Almost all Republicans in one focus group said their fears about the vaccine outweighed their fears about the virus. They described the vaccines as “scary," "unproven," and "rushed.”
Medical experts overwhelmingly agree that vaccines available in the U.S. are safe, well researched, and they provide powerful protection against a very dangerous disease. And vaccine-hesitant Republicans in the survey said they want doctors’ opinions on this.
But Castrucci said, in a climate this polarized, addressing people’s fears becomes much harder when scientific facts sound to some like points in a political debate.
“In a debate, someone wins and someone loses. And so once you've taken your stance — ‘I’m not going to get vaccinated’ — if it is a political stance, then you can’t move because then you lose," Castrucci said.
So what do party line differences in attitudes toward vaccines mean for Arizona?
“Everything in Arizona is usually more extreme," said Kevin DeMenna, a longtime Arizona lobbyist and political consultant.
DeMenna said there have always been divisions within Arizona’s GOP and responses to the COVID-19 vaccine have been no exception.
“I don’t want to generalize," DeMenna said, "but what I see here is the streak of stubborn resistance that is hard wired into the Arizona electorate.”
Some Arizona Republicans have made their concerns about the vaccine very public, like state senator Sonny Borelli, speaking on the Senate floor in May.
“We’re all being used as guinea pigs,” Borelli told senators.
The state’s top Republican, Governor Doug Ducey, on the other hand, has encouraged Arizonans to get the shot.
The governor appears in a health department video telling Arizonans, “when it’s your turn, please sign up. Getting the vaccine is the surest way of keeping you and your loved ones safe.”
But when it came time to get his own vaccine, Ducey did so without inviting the media. He has also shied away from flashy vaccine promotions like the statewide lottery programs many Democratic governors have launched.
DeMenna said throughout the pandemic, Ducey has been trying to stay true to his political values.
“A conservative will start from the position of individual choice, and that is the challenge in leading as a conservative and it has been for Ducey," DeMenna said.
Seven months after the first COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Arizona, demand for shots has stalled far short of the threshold for herd immunity. New variants are making the virus even more contagious. And Arizona is once again reporting one of the highest rates of new infections in the country, according to the CDC. Medical experts say controlling the virus will depend on persuading more of the state's population to get vaccinated.
Ducey’s office declined to provide an interview for this story. When asked about his message to unvaccinated Republicans, a spokesperson said by email the governor wants all Arizonans — Republican or Democrat — to get the shot.
But Castrucci said it’s critical GOP leadership acknowledges hesitancy within the party.
“Public health is always looking for characteristics that make groups more susceptible than others," Castrucci said. “Ignoring that does not serve the people well because you have to recognize that we will only ever be as safe as the group that’s vaccinated the least.”