COVID herd immunity? Parts of Washington state appear in no mood to join this herd

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Second gentleman Douglas Emhoff, right, and Gov. Jay Inslee, left, look out over the mass vaccination site at State Fair Park in Yakima on Tuesday. (Evan Abell / Yakima Herald-Republic via AP, pool)

Ever since early February, when some software volunteers debuted a website to help the public find COVID-19 vaccine appointments, they’ve had a unique window into the ebb and flow of what one engineer there dubbed “the spice.”

Who wants the vaccines, and who doesn’t? Where in the state are the shots snapped right up, and where are they left wanting?

They noticed one major trend right from the start.

“Once you start driving east from Seattle, for a few hours, you can find vaccine easily and readily available,” says Jessica Chong, a University of Washington assistant professor of genetics who is volunteering as a data scientist for the WA COVID Vaccine Finder, at covidwa.com.

This regional disparity in vaccine thirst was a curiosity at first, but now has become cause for concern.

“Tri-Citians slower than others to get the COVID vaccine,” the Herald newspaper reported this week. Thousands of vaccine appointments are available there, and most days the mass vaccination site at the Benton County fairgrounds hasn’t been able to fill all its slots.

“There seems to have been some reluctancy in a lot of citizens to be vaccinated,” the Pasco mayor said in that story.

State data spells it out. The 10 counties with the lowest vaccination rates have all seen 22% or fewer of their residents get the first shot so far — with nine of those 10 being red counties east of the Cascades.

That compares to 31% of the entire state starting the vaccination shots. One county — Jefferson, home of Port Townsend, on Puget Sound — has crossed over the 50% vaccinated threshold. King County sits slightly above the state average at 34%, according to state data as of April 3.

Why does this matter? Because public health officials say to reach herd immunity, to the point that life could return to a semblance of normal, 70% to 80% of state residents need to be immune. Unless you live in Jefferson County or the San Juan Islands (where 47% have gotten at least one shot), we are a looong way from reaching the herd goal.

In Eastern Washington in particular, segments of society appear to be in no mood to be a part of any herd.

“Government can kiss my ass,” posted the Franklin County Republican Central Committee, on the topic of getting vaccinated. This was on the official Facebook page of the county’s GOP organization! Franklin is in the Tri-Cities area; it’s probably not coincidental that it has the third worst vaccination rate in the state, at 18.7% (lower are Garfield County, at 18.5%, and Stevens County north of Spokane, at 17.3%).

Chelan County, in Central Washington, has a 39.5% vaccination rate, defying the general east-west trend.

Chong, the covidwa.com data scientist, said there are many reasons counties could have varied vaccination rates, such as age demographics, language barriers and driving distance to vaccination sites. But with appointments going unused in more rural counties, it can’t be vaccine scarcity anymore.

“This has been studied, though,” she added. “The No. 1 correlating factor for whether you’ll get the vaccine is whether you voted for Trump.”

Recent polls have indeed shown that nearly half of Republican men don’t intend to get the vaccine (GOP-voting women were more open to it). That could be simply resistance to a government program, or it could be part of a sentiment among many Republicans that the coronavirus was exaggerated, or even hyped to bring down former President Donald Trump.

A new survey for the Economist found that among these “vaccine rejecters,” more continue to trust Trump for sound medical advice than trust the CDC or Dr. Anthony Fauci. Trump did get vaccinated himself in January, but a majority of GOP voters told pollsters they hadn’t heard about that (nearly twice as many had heard the news about the Dr. Seuss books being pulled).

Vaccine skepticism is also one of those issues where the far right sometimes meets the far left, over on the back side. So getting all the way to 80% could be a stretch for any part of Washington state, red or blue.

“Without vaccine hesitancy, we’d be in really good shape,” Carl Bergstrom, a UW evolutionary biologist, said in a commentary the other day on herd immunity. “With vaccine hesitancy, it could be close here in the U.S. I’m hoping that much of the hesitancy we see is really more like … vaccine deliberation.”

Hope so, too. It’s perfectly understandable that people would be leery, or in “wait and see” mode. The data cited above suggests something else may be going on, though — something familiar and cultural that’s plagued us with the coronavirus from the start. Which is that America may just be too tribal and rebellious to get to where 80% of us ever agree to do anything.

It was nearly a year ago — and about 500,000 national deaths ago — that Clint Didier, Franklin County commissioner and local GOP chairman, suggested we go for herd immunity the old-fashioned way. “We can take care of this virus by letting the people catch it,” he said.

Even with a medicine now available, it seems like in some quarters that’s still the plan.

Danny Westneat: dwestneat@seattletimes.com; Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics.