Vaccinations: Where are we at?

The US has finally reached the point in its battle against COVID-19 when many of us can go without masks. Mostly, this is because vaccines are now widely available, and enough of the population has been vaccinated that transmission risks are greatly reduced (though we have not reached herd immunity, a threshold that requires 60%-80% of the population to be vaccinated. Experts believe that we should set that goal aside due to vaccine hesitancy and how quickly the coronavirus evolves). At the beginning of vaccine distribution, vaccinations were entirely left in the hands of individual states, most of which had different strategies for getting their residents vaccinated. Now we are seeing greatly different success rates across the country. For example, the northeast has done the best for itself in terms of percentage of the population fully vaccinated, while states like Mississippi and Alabama trail behind. Why is this?

Many sources note that high vaccination rates tend to fall along partisan lines, rather than due to individual states’ various vaccination strategies. This happens even at the county-by-county level, rather than state-by-state, with Republican strongholds tending to have lower vaccination rates and Democratic strongholds tending to have higher. So, a red county in a blue state might have a much lower overall vaccination level than the state as a whole (CNN). The situation, however, is much more complicated than that if you look closer. People without a college degree are less likely to be vaccinated, as are minority groups such as Black and Latinx people, regardless of where they are. This is due to a variety of factors, ranging from misinformation to lack of access and poor distribution in certain areas of the country. The US rate of vaccination is slowing down in most areas of the country, but there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to reaching the rest of the unvaccinated. 

What is the federal government doing?

President Biden has made it a top priority to get at least 70% of adult Americans partially vaccinated by July. His administration is doing a wide variety of things to try and meet this goal, from directly supplying mobile clinics to rural areas, to increasing walk-ins at federally supported pharmacies across the country, to offering limited monetary support to local efforts. Most of his administration’s efforts are focused on hard-to-reach groups and places, such as the vast rural areas of the nation. In spite of calls from many social leaders, the Biden administration has not tailored its efforts specifically to serve communities of color. 

How are things looking internationally?

Vaccine rollout programs have met with varying success around the world. Poor countries are still struggling to get access to vaccines. Countries that have a small population and a centralized system of governance (i.e. they have one main level of governance, the national one, not two levels with states and national like the US) tend to have more success in vaccinating their populations. We can see this in countries like Mongolia, the U.A.E., and Israel, while large, subdivided countries like India lag behind.

There is an international program to share vaccine doses, known as Covax. Covax’s rollout has been widely criticized, even by Dr. Tedros of the World Health Organization. He says that wealthy nations are not contributing as much of the vaccine as they should, leading to vastly unequal distribution between countries (BBC). Some nations, mostly wealthy ones, claim to be withholding doses in the interest of protecting their own populations. In an effort to address vaccine inequality, though, over 100 world leaders including President Biden have endorsed waiving intellectual property protections to the vaccines. If successful, that means anyone could produce vaccines without getting into legal trouble from the companies that hold the patents. 

Reading about vaccinations is confusing. What do I need to know?

Due to the multi-step process of getting fully vaccinated and the different ways numbers are reported, it can be hard to understand what terms mean and how comparisons are made. The best way to compare data between states and between countries is by looking at percent of the population fully vaccinated, not absolute number of doses administered. Absolute number of doses vary greatly by state and country, depending on distribution, vaccination strategy, and total population of the state (eg, Rhode Island will always have a smaller number of absolute doses administered than New York, even if it vaccinates everyone, because it has a smaller population). Similarly, you can directly compare the percentage of the population who have had one dose of the vaccine. You can also compare the total number of vaccinations administered per 100 people, but remember that each person needs two vaccines, so the number might be over 100, or whatever the sample size is.

Sources and further reading:

https://www.cnn.com/2021/05/10/us/us-vaccination-rates-states/index.html
https://www.cnn.com/2021/05/05/world/coronavirus-newsletter-intl-05-05-21/index.html

https://www.nytimes.com/covid-herd-immunity-vaccine

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/05/04/fact-sheet-president-biden-to-announce-goal-to-administer-at-least-one-vaccine-shot-to-70-of-the-u-s-adult-population-by-july-4th/#:~:text=The%20President%20will%20challenge%20states,school%20begins%20in%20the%20fall.

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/coronavirus/in-depth/herd-immunity-and-coronavirus/art-20486808

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7848666/

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/03/25/979972997/opinion-5-ways-to-make-the-vaccine-rollout-more-equitable

https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations

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