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The partisan divide on vaccination, explained in 3 charts

More Americans than ever are willing to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, but a partisan divide remains.

A woman with short gray hair, reflective sunglasses, and a US flag mask leans out of her car window to give a thumbs-up. A band-aid is visible on her upper arm.
A woman who has just been vaccinated gives a thumbs-up in California.
Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram/Getty Images

The United States’ vaccination rate has been increasing — and as of Saturday morning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 16.7 percent of US adults are fully vaccinated.

That’s still far from the 75 to 85 percent of Americans experts estimate need to be vaccinated in order to get the coronavirus pandemic under control, but recent research indicates that goal is within reach: a February survey by the Pew Research Center found 69 percent of American adults either have received at least one dose of vaccine or intend to be vaccinated when they can.

That’s an improvement over recent months; in November, before vaccinations had been rolled out, about 60 percent of Americans said they planned to be vaccinated.

But there remains a deep partisan divide in willingness to be vaccinated — and in how Americans view the danger caused by the pandemic. Pew’s work, and other recent surveys, have found Democrats are more likely than Republicans to be willing to take the vaccine, and are more likely to be concerned about the public health ramifications of the pandemic.

As Zeeshan Aleem recently wrote for Vox:

CBS News released a poll conducted between March 10 and 13 which found 33 percent of Republicans say they won’t get the vaccine when it becomes available to them, while just 10 percent of Democrats said the same. In that survey, 47 percent of Republicans said they’ve already received the vaccine or plan to do so, compared to 71 percent of Democrats.

Those findings follow a recent poll from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist which found that 47 percent of people who supported former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election say they won’t choose to be vaccinated (versus 10 percent of Biden supporters), as well as a Monmouth University poll released earlier in March that found 59 percent of Republicans either wanted to wait and “see how it goes” before getting vaccinated, or said they were likely to never get one. By contrast, 23 percent of Democrats felt the same way.

Similarly, Pew found 83 percent of Democrats have been vaccinated, or plan to be, compared to 56 percent of Republicans.

The Kaiser Family Foundation and Washington Post recently discovered that partisan vaccine hesitancy extends to the medical profession. A survey they conducted from February 11 to March 7 found 40 percent of Republican health care workers — including doctors, nurses, and staff — feel available vaccines may not be safe and effective. That view was held by 28 percent of Democrat health care workers.

Why this is the case is not completely clear — Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the United States, told Meet the Press that the divide “makes absolutely no sense.”

Republicans appear to be far less worried about — and frightened by — Covid-19 than Democrats

One thing polls have made clear of late is that people’s political inclinations tend to correspond with how worried they are about the virus in general, something that could influence how likely they are to take measures to prevent exposure and infection.

According to the Pew survey, for instance, 82 percent of Democrats say that the coronavirus outbreak is a major threat to the health of the American population, compared to 41 percent of Republicans. That divide has been fairly steady since last March, when 33 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of Democrats were worried about the threat Covid-19 posed to public health.

Pew also found Republicans to be much less concerned about the emergence of new variants of the coronavirus — 40 percent of Republicans said they worry these variants, some of which are more transmissible and deadly, could lead to “a major setback” in progressing toward the end of the pandemic, compared to 60 percent of Democrats. Members of both parties largely agree that the virus is a threat to the economy, however, with 83 percent of Democrats and 81 percent of Republicans sharing that sentiment.

A Franklin Templeton/Gallup study conducted in December 2020 — when confirmed daily cases regularly topped 200,000 (compared to the 50,000 to 60,000 confirmed cases seen for most of March 2021) — found Republicans far less likely to believe a coronavirus infection posed a hospitalization risk than Democrats. Members of both parties were found to vastly overestimate an infected person’s chances of being hospitalized, with 28 percent of Republicans, 41 percent of Democrats, and 35 percent of independents believing the hospitalization rate was at least 50 percent. Far more Republicans than Democrats — 26 percent to 10 percent — correctly responded that about 1 to 5 percent of those infected must be hospitalized.

According to more recent polling from CBS/YouGov (conducted from March 10 to 13), 51 percent of Republicans said they weren’t concerned about being infected with Covid-19, compared to the 17 percent of Democrats who weren’t concerned. When asked why they weren’t concerned, most Republicans said the risk of infection was exaggerated or declining.

These numbers suggest that at least a portion of Republican vaccine hesitancy may stem from some Republicans feeling as if the coronavirus is not something that is overly dangerous — or something to fear.

The results come as a majority of Americans express optimism about the state of the pandemic. About 60 percent of Americans say that the “coronavirus situation” is getting better, and 26 percent said it’s staying the same, according to a Gallup poll taken February 14 to 21. Only 14 percent say it’s getting worse, the lowest response to that question since July. For the pandemic to end, however, more people than are currently willing to do so will need to take a vaccine — and key to making that happen will be overcoming hesitancy among all groups, Republican voters included.

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