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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Analysis: The massive gap between Republicans and Democrats on vaccinating kids

Quinn Katigbak, 5, and her mother Courtney Matson wave at a passing teacher as they display Quinn’s vaccination card last month in Washington, D.C.  (Michael S. Williamson/Washington Post)
By Aaron Blake Washington Post

One of the biggest stories of the coronavirus pandemic in 2021 is the yawning gap between red and blue. While the virus was relatively nonpartisan in its impact last year, slower vaccine uptake among Republicans and conservatives has resulted in significantly – and increasingly – worse outcomes in red areas.

The campaign to get children vaccinated is following the same pattern – only more pronounced, and in ways that portend bruising battles ahead. New data from the Kaiser Family Foundation this week reinforces that vaccinating children against the virus remains even more split along partisan lines than vaccinations of adults.

Among adults, the foundation’s data show that 91% of Democrats have gotten at least one dose compared to 59% of Republicans. Among children ages 12 to 17, though, the gap is 55 points, with 80% of Democrats getting their adolescents vaccinated compared to just 25% among Republicans.

The gap is now smaller among ages 5 to 11, but that’s in large part because the vaccines for them were only recently authorized. While 24% of Democrats have gotten their young children vaccinated, the number is just 5% for Republicans – about a 5-to-1 ratio.

While it’s possible Republicans are just a little slower to vaccinate their children, the gaps are huge in other areas, as well. Just 7% of Democrats say they definitely won’t vaccinate their children for both age groups. The numbers are about half for Republicans in both.

What’s more, Republicans perceive the vaccines as a cost-benefit loss for both age groups. While Republican adults have certainly been more skeptical about vaccinating themselves, most are vaccinated. And in the Kaiser group’s July poll, Republicans said by about a 2-to-1 margin (59% to 31%) that becoming infected with the coronavirus was a bigger risk than getting vaccinated.

When it comes to children, though, it’s reversed. Among parents of 12- to 17-year-olds, Republicans say 61% to 37% that getting the vaccine is a bigger risk. Among parents of children 5 to 11, Republicans say the same by an even larger margin, 63% to 31%.

In both cases, more GOP parents perceive the vaccines as a bigger risk than say they will definitely not get their children vaccinated, suggesting that vaccination rates for these youths could remain significantly below 50% for the foreseeable future.

While claims of the risks of the vaccine are often overblown by conservatives’ favorite lawmakers and news outlets, there’s no question that the cost-benefit split is at least closer with children. Particularly with children ages 5 to 11, some members of the Food and Drug Administration’s advisory committee acknowledged that their decision to authorize the Pfizer vaccine on an emergency basis was a closer call than they had hoped – even as the vote was 17 to 0.

That’s because kids face less risk from the virus and because children – especially young boys – are apparently more susceptible to a very rare condition linked to the vaccines: myocarditis. As we reported at the time:

“FDA modeling showed that most of the time, vaccination would prevent between 200 and 250 hospitalizations per 1 million boys ages 5 to 11. It estimated the constant rate of hospitalizations for myocarditis would be significantly less – about 98 per million. But when cases were low, it would have kept as few as 21 boys per million of that age group out of the hospital.”

As Stat News summarized: “So normally, even in the highest-risk group, the number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations prevented would be double the number of hospitalizations due to myocarditis. But when the virus is under control, the number of myocarditis-related hospitalizations in boys in this age group would be slightly more than COVID-19-related hospitalizations because COVID-19 cases would be so low.”

The FDA argues that even in this case, outcomes for those hospitalized with COVID-19 would be worse than those with myocarditis and that it chose to model a high rate of myocarditis, meaning the condition may be less common.

To date, more than 750 American children have died of the coronavirus, according to the latest data, while no deaths have been linked to the vaccine. That doesn’t account for outcomes that come up short of death, but even the most common serious-but-rare condition tied to the vaccines is modeled to generally result in significantly fewer hospitalizations than contracting the coronavirus among young children.

It also ignores the fact that infected children, regardless of their own outcome, can serve as vectors for transmission to those who might be less fortunate. The data have been even clearer and more resounding on the superior benefit of vaccination for adults for a long time, and 4 in 10 Republicans remain unvaccinated.

Vaccine-related requirements for adults have already been a hot-button issue, with Republicans’ resistance beginning to bear fruit, as the Washington Post’s Amber Phillips reported this week. That includes in the courts and in a Senate vote this week in which two Democrats voted against President Biden’s vaccine-or-testing mandate for large businesses.

But where businesses and even state and local governments have mandated the vaccines for employees, they have attained overwhelming compliance.

What these numbers suggest is that introducing such mandates in schools might make the current battles seem relatively tame.

If fewer than half of Republicans vaccinate their children, and 6 in 10 truly believe the vaccines to be a bigger risk than the virus for their young loved ones, the opposition will make what we see today look like a Sunday stroll. And it would appear to be a consensus issue in one of the two major political parties in a way we haven’t seen before.