How misinformation and the partisan divide drove a surge in U.S. COVID deaths

As the death toll from the coronavirus nears 1 million Americans, we’ve been exploring why the u.S. Suffered such a terrible loss, especially when compared to other nations similar to us. While there are many reasons for this, one of them is that many Americans have not wanted to be vaccinated. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the death toll from the coronavirus nears one million Americans, we have been exploring why the United States suffered such a terrible loss, especially when compared to other nations that are similar to us.

    While there are many reasons for this, one of them is that many Americans have not wanted to be vaccinated.

    William Brangham examines that part of the story.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, early in the pandemic, people died from COVID in big cities and small towns. They died in blue states and in red states at roughly equal rates.

    But once the vaccines were rolled out, that started to change. According to Pew Research, from late last year on, COVID deaths in the most pro-Trump counties in America, the red line here, were about 180 percent of what they were in the most pro-Biden counties, the blue line.

    That disparity exists in large part because vaccination has become a deeply partisan issue. Many argue that our failure to get more Americans to take these safe, free and largely lifesaving vaccines has cost this country tens of thousands of lives.

  • Katie Lane, College Student:

    The live photo of him just asking "What?" and putting his hands on his hips, I don't know. It's just — it's so him.

  • William Brangham:

    Katie Lane says her dad, Patrick, was the best dad in the world, the kid who never grew up.

  • Katie Lane:

    This one right here, we are in the drive-through. My dog is in his lap.

  • William Brangham:

    Patrick worked for Boeing in Washington state. Katie, who's now a Jr. at Washington State University, says her dad knew the pandemic was real, but he was reluctant to get the vaccine and he kept putting it off.

    He also repeated a lot of misinformation, that the vaccines could cause infertility for her, that there were likely hidden side effects.

  • Katie Lane:

    He watched some YouTubers. FOX News was an occasional YouTube clip channel he watched, stuff like that.

    For some reason, with this vaccine, people were telling you not to get it. For some reason, that stuck with my dad. And that's ultimately why he didn't choose to.

    August 12, 2021, he took a day off work and moved me into my first apartment at college. And the next morning, he gave me a big hug. And he said: "I'm really proud of you, Katie bug." And he walked out my front door, locked in that U-Haul, and that's the last time I ever saw him alive.

  • William Brangham:

    A few weeks later, Patrick Lane got COVID and died in the ICU at a local hospital.

    Liz Hamel studies public opinion at the Kaiser Family Foundation, where they have been tracking Americans' attitudes about the COVID vaccine.

    In December of 2020, when Americans were asked if they would get a free, safe COVID vaccine, around 15 percent of respondents said, no matter what, no. That's not unusual, compared to past polls, but who that group is has changed.

  • Liz Hamel, Kaiser Family Foundation:

    One of the things that really stands out is the partisan divide in who's getting vaccinated and not. We find that people who identify as Democrats are vastly more likely to be vaccinated compared to people who identify as Republicans.

  • William Brangham:

    Sixty-one percent of unvaccinated people in America today are Republican. It's now the single most reliable predictor of vaccination status.

    But this wasn't the case with prior vaccines. Multiple polls over the last few years showed majorities believing in the value of the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine, and bipartisan uptake of the flu vaccine. The Kaiser Foundation's data hints at why this partisan divide over COVID vaccines emerged.

    Strong majorities of Democrats say they trust these mainstream news sources for information about COVID-19. The only source that nearly half of Republicans trusted was FOX News.

  • Trish Regan, FOX News:

    This is yet another attempt to impeach the president.

  • William Brangham:

    From the start of the pandemic, many of FOX's top anchors said the threat from COVID was being exaggerated to harm President Trump.

  • Laura Ingraham, FOX News:

    Democrats and their media cronies have decided to weaponize fear and also weaponize suffering to improve their chances against Trump in November.

  • Sean Hannity, FOX News:

    They're scaring the living hell out of people. And I see it again as like, oh, let's bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.

  • Liz Hamel:

    People who have chosen not to get the vaccine are — most of them say they're not at all worried about getting sick from COVID. A majority of them believe that the news media is exaggerating the seriousness of the pandemic.

  • William Brangham:

    And when the vaccines were developed, FOX gave prime-time coverage to the baseless claims that they didn't work and were, in fact, harming people.

  • Alex Berenson, Conservative Author:

    The mRNA COVID vaccines need to be withdrawn from the market now. No one should get them. No one should get boosted. No one should get double-boosted. They are a dangerous and ineffective product at this point.

  • Robert Wilson (COVID Patient):

    Until it affect you personally, you don't. Now I know. Not being able to breathe, it's a scary thing.

  • William Brangham:

    We heard some of these fears firsthand in a COVID emergency room at Baton Rouge General Hospital last July; 49-year-old Robert Wilson didn't think the virus was much to worry about; 600,000 Americans had died at that point. He hadn't been vaccinated.

  • Robert Wilson:

    It wasn't political. It was just I didn't figure I was going to need it, because nobody really knows the long term of this vaccine. People are scared of it.

  • William Brangham:

    Seeing this large number of unvaccinated people coming through your doors, is that frustrating to you? Does it just — you just think, that's just the way our society is? Like, how do you square that?

  • Dr. Stephen Brierre, Baton Rouge General Hospital:

    I try not to dwell on it too much.

  • William Brangham:

    Why not?

  • Dr. Stephen Brierre:

    Because it does frustrate. There is a little bit of, we shot ourselves in our foot. I'm not mad at people who didn't vaccinate. And I understand a lot of it. I mean, there's so much misinformation out there and in the country is so polarized.

  • William Brangham:

    Kaiser's research found that people who chose not to get vaccinated were also very open to incorrect information about the pandemic.

  • Liz Hamel:

    There was a tendency to believe many, multiple pieces of misinformation, so, for instance, believing things like the government is hiding deaths related to the COVID vaccine, believing that the vaccines contain a microchip or that they cause infertility.

    So there was a strong correlation between vaccination status and belief in some of this misinformation.

    Joseph Uscinski, University of Miami: I mean, a lot of the misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines online are accessed by people who already aren't going to get vaccinated.

  • William Brangham:

    The University of Miami's Joseph Uscinski studies conspiracy theories. He argues the partisan divide over COVID vaccines is also because of the type of Republican that was drawn to Donald Trump.

  • Joseph Uscinski:

    President Trump built a coalition of conspiracy-minded people, and he was doing that with conspiratorial rhetoric. But he even engaged in misinformation about vaccines, claiming on Twitter at one point, long before he ran for president, that vaccines caused autism.

    Bill O'Reilly, Former Host, "The O'Reilly Factor": Both the president and I are vaxxed.

    And did you get the booster?

    Donald Trump, Former President of the United States: Yes.

  • Bill O’Reilly:

    I got it too. OK, so…


  • Donald Trump:

    Don't. Don't. Don't. Don't. Don't.

  • Joseph Uscinski:

    And when he makes efforts now to say that he got the shot and people should get it, he gets booed by his own crowd, because these are the people that he sought to bring around him. So, their mind just isn't going to change at this point just because he says to go get it.

  • William Brangham:

    Do you think that there was any way that you could have persuaded your dad to get vaccinated sooner?

  • Katie Lane:

    I don't think that there was. I tried really hard. I don't think there's anything I could have done more.

  • William Brangham:

    Millions of Americans have now lost a loved one to this virus. And so many of those deaths didn't have to occur.

    For Katie Lane, the coming commemoration for the million lives lost is for others to do. She just wishes her dad was still around.

  • Katie Lane:

    That one million is a huge deal, but that one in that one million is — it's been worth more to me than the other 999,000.

  • William Brangham:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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