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The lack of COVID herd immunity could lock in the red state-blue state divide for a long time

Light traffic flowed through cones as people arrived at the Dodger Stadium parking lot to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Los Angeles.Mark J. Terrill/AP/file

A year after the United States came under the grip of the coronavirus it should be clear that, no, the universal sacrifice from a pandemic did not bring the nation together as some suggested it might. It only made the nation more polarized politically and culturally.

And now something else should be evident: An emerging but striking divide in vaccination rates among red and blue states could mean the coronavirus and the political division that comes with it are going to stick around for a while.

To be sure, both the pandemic and political strife in the United States are better than they were a year ago. There is genuine optimism that the virus could soon be under control. Governors are lifting business and travel restrictions. In terms of politics, the fact that the presidential election season is over and there’s no longer a president fanning division every day has meant the temperature has been lowered to a point where members of Congress are starting to debate policy again and not personalities.

However as the New York Times reported on Monday, the long-held goal of reaching something called “herd immunity” to eradicate COVID-19 probably isn’t going to happen for a long time, if ever.


The concept of herd immunity means that there is enough immunity in the population — either through natural immunity or vaccination — that the virus has nowhere to go and dies out. Experts say that for herd immunity to happen now, roughly 80 percent of Americans would need to get the vaccine. Given current vaccination trends, that looks like it will not happen for a while.

While vaccination rates nationwide remain impressive, there are still roughly 30 percent of American adults who are vaccinate hesitant. Now it could be, as Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker suggested on Monday, that a significant chunk of that 30 percent didn’t want to be in the first wave of vaccinations and will eventually get on board.


But even if that’s true, it is not enough. Children and adolescents make up 22 percent of the United States population. In other words: As long as there are some adults who don’t get the vaccine or develop immunity from a previous COVID infection, then nearly all children will need to get vaccinated to reach herd immunity — and that could take several more months if not longer.

This points to a future where some states, particularly those that tend to vote Democratic, get closer to herd immunity status, while states that historically vote Republican will not.

The latest tracker of the percentage of vaccinated adults tells the story. The 22 states doing the best job with getting vaccines into willing arms all voted for Joe Biden in the last presidential election.

Meanwhile, 14 of the bottom 15 states in terms of vaccination percentage all voted for Republican Donald Trump.

Heading into the fall it might appear as though the nation is roughly on the same page. Children might be in school in red and blue states, people could be returning to work everywhere, and there could be some large crowds of fans at football games.

However, among that shared reality, there could be two very different risk levels for contracting the virus for some time.

And with the virus still around in some form, it will continue to dictate politics and culture. Mask mandates and other public health measures could dominate local and national political debates into the 2022 election cycle, particularly in purple states. Meanwhile, those in red states and blue states will be living in completely different worlds as it relates to the risk of contracting the virus.


James Pindell can be reached at Follow him @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.