Mainers will sometimes pat themselves on the back from bucking national trends, and when it comes to politics, there’s plenty of evidence to back it up. Maine has an independent spirit and is proud of it.

However, this spring, too many of our friends and neighbors are falling in line with a perilous trend, with enormous consequences.

Maine is one of the best states in terms of its overall COVID vaccination efforts. But the rate of giving new shots has plummeted in recent days. State leaders have offered several explanations, but one is, understandably, missing from the epidemiologists’ current talking points: partisanship.

Last week, the state released detailed rates on vaccination by ZIP code. We have had the chance to analyze this data and to study it alongside a host of other social and demographic data. One explanation rules all others: communities that voted for Donald Trump are systematically less likely to get vaccinated.

In Maine, because of our unique geography, historic divides, and old population, we lean into all sorts of other explanations. Surely it’s not as simply as partisanship?

We took a look at the most likely explanations, and there is a bit of truth to each one. There is an important rural/urban divide, with less access to vaccination sites in rural areas. There is an education gap, and communities with highly educated populations have largely met, if not exceeded, that mythical heard-immunity goal.

And yet, while each of these potential explanations helps, they nip at the edges. The state has a host of policies to make access to the vaccine more equitable, especially for our working, rural neighbors. No, the data could not be more transparent.

This is not a failure of policy. It’s not about rural Maine or older towns. And this is not about some areas of the state getting hit harder by COVID-19.

Our statistical models show an overwhelming relationship between vaccination rates and how many residents in that community supported Donald Trump in the last election.

Diving into our model, if we look at the zip codes where Trump won, on average, vaccination rates are 15 percentage points lower than in the places areas won by Biden. Again, and this is important, this disparity holds up even when we control for a host of other factors, like income, age, and education. It even holds up when we introduce the actual number of COVID cases in the community.

Indeed, in the 17 towns where vaccination rates are at their lowest (less than 40 percent), Donald Trump’s average level of support was a whopping 66 percent. (Statewide Trump netted 44 percent.)

There are some notable exceptions. For instance, Spruce Head, population 793, where 82 percent of residents supported Trump, has one of the highest vaccination rates in the state. The Trump-supporting towns of Holden, Calais, and Millinocket also boast higher-than-average vaccination rates.

But across the state, partisanship is the single largest predictor of a community’s vaccination rate. And this means that political leaders, especially Republican leaders, have a special obligation to speak to the value of getting Mainers vaccinated.

We admit making inferences from ZIP code data is fraught. It is mathematically possible, for instance, that every Democratic voter in a Trump stronghold is refusing to get a shot. Yet our models are consistent with individual-level, nationally representative surveys that show Republicans are far less likely to trust the vaccine’s efficacy, believe that it is necessary to get back to normal, or actively seek out available testing appointments.

Thankfully, Maine is opening back up. But it will be impossible to protect the most vulnerable in society unless we account for the deep partisan divide roiling across the country and our great state.

As with any cure, the first step is to diagnose the cause.

Clear messages from state GOP leaders might help, yet the tide of nationalized politics is strong. So much of the nation’s COVID-19 fight – think mask-wearing – has been wrapped up in our tribalized, partisan identities.

Maine’s culture is unique. Casual observers will take Mainer’s stoicism for selfish individualism. But below the surface, Mainers care about each other – and they always have.

It’s time to buck the national tide once again and put Maine first.

— Special to the Telegram


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