FAU Study Shows Population Characteristics Tied to COVID-19 Spread
Florida counties with higher COVID-19 vaccination rates experience significantly fewer infections and fewer vaccine breakthrough cases, according to a new study from Florida Atlantic University. It’s the third in a series of studies by Patrick Bernet, Ph.D., an associate professor at FAU, that also links higher proportions of young adults with higher infection and mortality rates among all age groups and identifies racial disparities in infection and mortality rates.
Taken together, these three studies join a growing body of evidence that identifies specific population characteristics associated with pandemic spread.
“State policymakers could have used the data from these studies as an early warning to protect Floridians, no matter their age, race or vaccination status,” said Bernet, who teaches health administration courses in FAU’s College of Business. "Multiple studies report that such policies would save thousands of unnecessary deaths and prevent significantly more infections, work sick days and hospitalizations.”
In each of these studies, counties with stronger support for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election experience significantly higher infection and death rates – above those associated with age composition, racial mix and vaccination coverage.
Bernet’s most recent study, published in the Journal of Public Health Management & Practice, shows that each 1 percent increase in a county’s full vaccination rate was associated with 82 fewer infections per 100,000, from April to September 2021. Further, each 1 percent increase in the county share of votes for Trump was associated with 110 more COVID-19 infections per 100,000 through March 2021 and a 0.546 percent decrease in county vaccination rates through September 2021.
The elevated infection rates in Republican-leaning counties are only partly explained by the politically associated decrease in vaccination rates. If two counties have the same vaccination rates, the one with a higher preference for Trump in the 2020 presidential election still would experience higher infections. The excess is consistent with prior research identifying lower rates of masking, distancing and other community health precautions in counties with higher proportions of Republican voters.
The study can help policymakers construct “selective firewalls,” such as implementing targeted masking requirements for just several weeks and in limited geographic areas.
“We don't have to pour water everywhere to fight one or two hotspots, but if we don’t tend to them, we’ll see another blaze,” Bernet said. “This study helps identify those hotspots and makes it possible for policymakers to spend public resources in the most cost-effective manner: isolating disruptions to business to a small area for a short duration while also limiting the spread of COVID-19 infections and deaths.”
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