Big Gaps in Vaccine Rates Across the U.S. Worry Health Experts

WASHINGTON (AP) -
People work at a mass vaccination site operated by the University of Alabama at Birmingham on Tuesday, May 18, 2021, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

A month after every adult in the U.S. became eligible for the vaccine, a distinct geographic pattern has emerged: The highest vaccination rates are concentrated in the Northeast, while the lowest ones are mostly in the South.

Experts say the gap reflects a multitude of factors, including political leanings, religious beliefs, and education and income levels.

Close to 160 million Americans — 48% of the population — have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 125 million are fully vaccinated against the virus.

New England and Northeastern states account for eight of the top 10 in vaccination rates, with Vermont No. 1 as of last Friday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 64% of its population has received as least one dose.

Following right behind are Massachusetts, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New Mexico, all of them at 54% or higher.

Eight Southern states are in the bottom 10, all of which are under 40%. Mississippi was dead last at 32%, followed by Louisiana, Alabama, Wyoming, Idaho, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, West Virginia and South Carolina.

Closing the gaps is vital to controlling the virus that has killed 588,000 people in the U.S., health experts say. The vaccination drive has helped drive U.S. cases down to their lowest level since last June, at around 30,000 a day on average, and reduced deaths to about 570 a day, a level not seen since last July.

“Low vaccination rates will leave room for the virus to circulate, re-emerge and possibly form new variants,” said Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “High vaccination rates are critical to keeping the disease under control, especially when we get back to the fall and winter.”

The divides aren’t just limited to states — there are marked differences between urban and rural places, from county to county and from one neighborhood to another.

The disparities are even more glaring when looking at individual places around the U.S.: Vermont has four counties where 75% of the residents have had at least one dose, while there are 11 Mississippi counties with under 25% vaccinated.

Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said the gaps in COVID-19 vaccination can be traced directly to political influences, particularly what he called “anti-science” attitudes among Republican leaders, who were skeptical about the value of masks, too.

Getting more people vaccinated will take continued education, incentives and “head-on” confrontation of misinformation, Topol said.

He expects U.S. regulators to grant full approval to the vaccines soon, which will give employers, the military and health systems the green light to require vaccination. “That will make the biggest difference,” Topol said.

Nationwide, rural counties are behind urban places in their COVID-19 vaccination efforts — 39% of adults in rural counties had received at least one shot compared with 46% in urban counties as of April 10, according to an analysis released Tuesday by the CDC.

The rural-urban gap exists among women, men and both younger and older adults, the CDC said.