COVID-19 is killing more Republicans than Democrats, according to a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study, titled Excess Death Rates for Republicans and Democrats During the COVID-19 Pandemic, used voter registration and death records to answer a question: is there a link between political affiliation and rates of COVID related death in the U.S.?
The short answer is yes. “In 2018 and the early parts of 2020, excess death rates for Republicans and Democrats are similar, and centered around zero,” the study said. “Both groups experienced a similar large spike in excess deaths in the winter of 2020-2021. However, in the summer of 2021—after vaccines were widely available—the Republican excess death rate rose to nearly double that of Democrats, and this gap widened further in the winter of 2021.”
The study attributes this to the vaccine uptake disparity between Republicans and Democrats, which has been widely documented as more Republicans refused to take the vaccine; the most vocal anti-vax voices were Republican politicians and some conservative news outlets: “The gap in excess death rates between Republicans and Democrats is concentrated in counties with low vaccination rates and only materializes after vaccines became widely available,” the study notes.
Is it possible that anti-vax Republicans dying from COVID affected the midterms? “If Republicans are dying in increased numbers relative to their Democratic colleagues in a political climate where there are so many close electoral contests, could that have been the decider in a particular particular race?” Jason L. Schwartz, an associate professor of Health Policy at the School of Public Health at Yale and one of the authors of the study, told Motherboard. “Our study can't answer that. But it certainly seems plausible given just how stark the differences in vaccination rates have been, among Democrats and Republicans.”
Philip Bump at the Washington Post looked at this same data and posits that COVID deaths did not affect the midterms and suggests that even asking the question is a “grotesque effort to score political points.” However, with so many House races still too close to call and voting margins razor-thin in many important races, it is worth trying to understand if COVID-19 and vaccine rates had any effect on the races.
Schwartz said that he and his colleagues wanted to look at something that hadn’t been carefully studied before. “Could we actually drill down at the level of individuals—in this case of individual death rates—and see whether or not politicization could be linked to mortality,” he said. “So far, it looks like there really is a signal here, particularly linked to the availability of vaccines.”
Schwartz and his colleagues started with voter registration data in Florida and Ohio from 2017. Then they looked at data from Datavent, an organization that provides privacy-preserving information linked to data from the Social Security Administration. The researchers connected all this data to information from funeral homes, newspapers and other resources to build a database of annual U.S. deaths.
The research discovered that excess deaths between Democrats and Republicans remained steady in the early part of the pandemic then began to separate after vaccines were widely available. Schwartz said the reasons why were beyond the remit of the study, but speculated that early COVID prevention measures were government-driven while the vaccine required someone to make a personal choice.
“If you think about the pre-vaccine period…those were times where a lot of measures in place to mitigate the virus were top-down government policy. “Schools closing, football games played in empty stadiums, or restrictions on large indoor gatherings. There were absolutely political divides about those policies,” he said. “But in some cases they were harder for the individual to avoid…once vaccines were on the scene, that really did shift things into that individual choice domain.”
The excess death rate difference isn’t small. “In the summer of 2021—after vaccines were widely available—the Republican excess death rate rose to nearly double that of Democrats, and this gap widened further in the winter of 2021,” the study said. This rose to a 153% difference after all adults could take the vaccine in Florida and Ohio.
This data is part of an early study and doesn’t paint the whole picture. “Our study has several limitations. First, our mortality data, while detailed and recent, only includes approximately 80 percent of deaths in the US. However, excess death patterns in our data are similar to those in other reliable sources,” the study said. “Second, because we did not have information on an individual’s vaccination status, analyses of the association between vaccination rates and excess deaths relied on county-level vaccination rates. Third, our study is based on data from the only states where we could obtain voter registration information (Florida and Ohio); hence, our results may not generalize to other states.”
The pandemic also isn’t over. The vaccines have stopped a lot of people from getting COVID, but vaccine rates in deep red parts of the U.S. are still low. “If these differences in vaccination by political party affiliation persist, then the higher excess death rate among Republicans is likely to continue through the subsequent stages of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the study said.