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Vaccine Hesitancy Is Still Strong In Many COVID-19-Battered States

A lot has happened over the past month that had the potential to convince vaccine hesitant Americans to get the jab: More than 1,000 Americans are dying every day, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approved one of the COVID-19 vaccines, and Republicans have been more emphatic that everyone — even their supporters — needs to get vaccinated.  

But the effect has been mixed. Each month for the past four months, Morning Consult has asked Americans whether they’ve gotten the vaccine and, if not, whether they plan to. The most recent results show a notable dip in the number of vaccine-hesitant Americans — those who say they do not plan to get the vaccine, or are unsure if they ever will — in some hard-hit states, while others barely budged even as COVID-19 cases climbed and prominent Republicans promoted the vaccine during the same period when the poll was conducted (July 24 to August 23). Packed ICUs and Ron DeSantis speeches aren’t always enough to sway people who reject the vaccine. 

Take Florida, where new COVID-19 cases began climbing in early July. Now, the average number of deaths per day in the state is higher than at any other point of the ongoing pandemic. The day before Morning Consult’s most recent round of polling began, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis publicly promoted the vaccines, saying that they are saving lives and defended himself against pushback from Republican anti-vaxxers who thought he was doing too much to tout the vaccine. Vaccination rates in the state did climb during this period: from early July to early August, the number of doses administered daily increased by 50 percent, though they remain far below April’s peak. But according to the Morning Consult survey, from July to August the percentage of Floridians unsure if they wanted to receive the vaccine only decreased by 0.6 percentage points — less than the poll’s 1 percent margin of error. The number of vaccine refusers in the poll decreased by 1.2 percentage points. 

In South Carolina, July and August also saw a cascade of new cases that rival the state’s peak in January. Some state Republicans — but not all — have stressed vaccination. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has been promoting the vaccine since he received his first dose last year, doubling his efforts after he tested positive for a breakthrough case in August. But vaccination rates increased only modestly here, from a seven-day moving average of around 3,000 doses per day at the start of July to 5,206 at the start of August. And like other southern states, South Carolina barely saw a change among vaccine-hesitant residents between July and August polls. The percent of South Carolinians who said they did not plan to get the vaccine dropped from 22.9 percent to 21.6 percent, while those who were unsure was essentially unchanged at 12.6 percent. 

Of course, not all states with the highest COVID-19 rates are run entirely by the GOP. In Kentucky, where Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has promoted vaccines and mask-wearing, there also has been hardly any change in uncertainty and refusal rates over the last month despite increased vaccination rates in some of the state’s counties that were previously lagging. In fact, from July to August, the number of vaccine refusers in the state essentially stayed the same. And more or less the same number of people in the state are unsure whether they want the vaccine.

On the other hand, some states registered more of a change, although significant pockets of resistance remain. Mississippi, which has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country, saw a record-breaking wave of new cases in August. Some Republicans here, too, began publicly touting the vaccine over the last few weeks, such as state Sen. Jeremy England. England got his first dose of the vaccine in August, and made several lengthy social media posts promoting the vaccine, writing that “The verdict is out. The vaccine works.” Vaccination rates ticked up slightly in July, and have remained steady since. Mississippi also saw a notable drop in the number of people who say they refuse to get the vaccine: 30 percent of Mississipians said they don’t plan to get the shot in the July poll, while 26 percent said so in the most recent poll. But that drop of 4 percentage points still means that more than one-quarter of the population is unwilling to get the jab. Meanwhile, the number of unsure Mississippians dropped less than 1 percentage point in the last month. The state’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, said on Saturday that people in his state were “less scared” of the virus because they believe in “eternal life.” 

Louisiana also has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country and saw a spike in single-day hospitalizations in July. That month, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said the rise in cases and hospitalizations in the state was “scary” and repeatedly pushed residents to get vaccinated. On top of that, Louisiana representative and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise said that he had “high confidence” in the vaccine — four days after he received the jab himself. From then to now, however, there’s only been a “little bump” in vaccines. Vaccine hesitancy and refusal rates, however, have declined by a few percentage points: the number of people who said they wouldn’t get the vaccine dropped 4.3 percentage points over the last month, while the number of people who say they’re unsure if they want the jab dropped 0.6 percentage points. It’s possible that conditions in the state will worsen after Hurricane Ida ripped through Louisiana over the weekend. Edwards told the Associated Press on Sunday that over 2,400 COVID-19 patients were in Louisiana hospitals, many of which are grappling with power outages and infrastructure damage after the storm. 

All of this again shows how getting vaccinated has become less of a public health issue and more of an identity and political one — if statements of support for vaccinations among political heavyweights in either party is moving the needle at all, it is doing so inconsistently. It seems there’s a certain bedrock of anti-vaccine Americans for whom no amount of new cases or political statements is convincing, and the rest of the public is left grappling with the consequences.

Mary Radcliffe is a senior research assistant for FiveThirtyEight.

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.

Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.