King County has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates among major U.S. counties. But since the beginning of the vaccine rollout, we’ve seen the rates in parts of the south and east lagging behind the rest of the county.
Now some new data helps us understand some of the “why” behind this disparity.
A research project from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington School of Medicine and COVID Collaborative shows data on people’s openness to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine by ZIP code for the entire United States.
From June 25 to July 1, there was a significantly higher percentage of people expressing hesitancy about the vaccine in certain neighborhoods in South and East King County.
In Auburn’s 98002, about 21% of residents answered “probably not” or “definitely not” when asked if they would choose to get vaccinated if offered a vaccine to prevent COVID-19. That was nearly three times higher than the overall rate of 7.8% for King County.
Nearby in Federal Way’s 98003, about 18% expressed hesitancy about getting vaccinated, the second highest percentage in the county. And in Algona/Pacific’s 98047, about 17% were reluctant to get jabbed.
All three of these ZIP codes are in South King County. But there are some similarly high numbers in the more rural eastern parts of the county. In two East King County ZIP codes — Skykomish’s 98288 and Ravendale’s 98051 — about 15% of the population were hesitant.
The data is based off surveys conducted online by Carnegie Mellon University through Facebook (about 50,000 people take the survey every day), and then fleshed out through statistical modeling.
Some people are reluctant to be vaccinated because of fears about side effects or as-yet unknown health consequences. For others, particularly those on the far right of the political spectrum, some concerns fall into the realm of conspiracy theories.
Whatever the reasons, this new data helps us understand how individual hesitancy, rather than a lack of access, has dampened vaccination rates in some parts of King County. The IHME data is intended to help health officials and other policymakers better target outreach efforts to these areas where there is higher reluctance.
According to the data, the ZIP code with the lowest level of hesitancy in King County is Preston’s 98050. This is an affluent exurban area east of Issaquah, with a population that skews older (median age is 52). Less than 1 percent of residents in this area expressed hesitancy in the June 25 to July 1 period.
In Seattle, the lowest percentage of vaccine hesitancy was in the 98112 ZIP code, which includes Madison Park and Madison Valley, Montlake and East Capitol Hill. Only about 2% said they were unlikely to take the vaccine.
Dr. Christopher Murray, director of IHME, said this project was undertaken because existing data on vaccine hesitancy was only available at the county level. It was simply not granular enough to help with targeted outreach. Attitudes about the vaccine can vary tremendously between communities and it’s not unusual to find nearby, or even adjacent ZIP codes, where there’s a very different level of vaccine reception.
“I think if somehow we could have even more granular detail [than ZIP codes] we would find very focal patterns based on specific communities, where hesitancy is going to be high,” he said. “Even just from the people I know socially, there are communities of people who are much more skeptical or have trust issues, or believe what they’ve read online about vaccines being dangerous.”
The data has published on a weekly basis since January, and has shown a tremendous reduction in vaccine hesitancy across the country — particularly from January to May. Since then, it trended back up somewhat, Murray says.
Even in King County, nearly one in three (32%) people expressed reluctance in the first week of January, according to the data.
“A lot of people come with the idea that you’re born hesitant or not,” Murray said. “But it’s much more fluid than we realize. People respond to both the epidemic and what they read in the media.”
Murray says it is very difficult to predict vaccine hesitancy based on any demographic factors, but there is a clear urban-rural divide, with hesitancy being lower in urban areas and higher in rural ones.
And while there are pockets of some vaccine hesitancy in King County, it’s all relative. Nowhere around here can compare with some other areas of the U.S., particularly in the Midwest and the South.
For example, there are more than 900 ZIP codes across the country where the majority of the population is hesitant. Three are in Eastern Washington (99121, 99346, 99114).
There are even some ZIP codes where nearly everyone is hesitant.
In 14 ZIP codes — 10 in North and South Dakota — more than 90% expressed reluctance to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated the percentages as representing those who are hesitant among the unvaccinated population. They are representative of those who are hesitant among the entire population.