Abstract: The article provides sourced commentary on the debate over the benefits of COVID-19 vaccination and their outcomes related to public health.
Throughout the course of my lifetime (and certainly for generations before), there has been no shortage of topics that cause political division in New Jersey and the United States. This is a given and was anticipated by our founders. Moreover, so too was the construct of political “tribalism” that is so often evoked by the modern punditry. Unfortunately, teams divided by political ideology are thus now seeking political victory first and good public policy second. While these conditions are both disappointing and pervasive, the divide over COVID-19 vaccines is perhaps the most perplexing.
To date, millions of people have received COVID-19 vaccines, in particular those developed by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. Tack on the addition of administered booster shots, clinical trials, and real-world observed data, it is beyond conclusive that these vaccines are safe and radically reduce the likelihood of severe illness, hospitalization, and death. This indicates that the goal of these rapidly developed vaccines has been impressively achieved. Despite the unsophisticated takes frequently hurled that vaccines do not work; or the outright wrong assertion that those with the vaccine are worse off for having gotten it, what the vast consensus of medical, public health, and research science communities have concluded, is that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.
Yes, the decline in vaccine effectiveness over time is disappointing. Yes, the rate of mutation of this virus yields a constant state of feeling we are behind the curve. Yes, the never-ending barrage of COVID-related information and speculation is overwhelming and often confusing. Indeed, media sources and opinion shows stoke this confusion purposely (much like reality television, political punditry requires conflict for it to be interesting to viewers). Regardless of what is good for clicks and ratings, the science on what is in our national public interest is clear – vaccinations are safe and effective at improving public health outcomes.
There is too a discernable clarity between party ideology and the likelihood one has received a COVID vaccine. This “tribalistic” divide is obvious both nationally and in New Jersey. As of December 2021, nationally speaking, 90% of those who identify as Democrats are vaccinated, whereas only 60% of Republicans have reported having even one shot of a COVID vaccine. In NJ, as a whole one of the nation’s most vaccinated states, there is nevertheless a tangible party-line divide. Democrat Joe Biden won all five of the states’ most vaccinated counties (by the percentage of their population) in the 2020 Presidential Election, and Democrat Phil Murphy won four out of the five most vaccinated counties in the 2021 Gubernatorial Election. Conversely, Republican Donald Trump won three of the five least vaccinated counties in the 2020 Presidential Election, and Republican Jack Ciattarelli won all five of the least vaccinated counties in the state’s 2021 Gubernatorial Election.
Divides are also discernable, both nationally and in New Jersey, among divisions in socioeconomic class. Nationally, there is a clear pattern indicating the lower one is on the socioeconomic scale, the less likely they are to be vaccinated against COVID-19; whereas the higher one is on the socioeconomic scale, the more likely they are to be vaccinated against COVID-19. In NJ this manifests tangibly where of the top ten most vaccinated counties, seven of them are notably higher on the socioeconomic scale (measured by per capita income); whereas 8 of the least vaccinated counties are notably lower on the socioeconomic scale.
Despite these correlations, there is nevertheless considerable agreement across the traditional political divide. The de facto leader of the American Republican-voter coalition, former President Donald J. Trump (who was boo’d by his own supporters over the issue), middle-of-the-road voters, President Joseph R. Biden, and the most liberal and conservative of American political leaders all agree that vaccination is essential for a return to normalcy, to protect lives, and ensure a robust economy. Furthermore, there is nothing to suggest that the divide observable among socioeconomic classes is purposeful, but is vastly more related to the inability of some to access vaccination opportunities.
There are some voices (fringe and mainstream), with large megaphones, who express doubt over the effectiveness of vaccination. Through legacy, indifference, disingenuousness, or self-identification these doubters appear from all sides of the political spectrum. However, their volume and diversity of political ethos are no substitution for veracity. The preponderance of the evidence that suggests the effectiveness and safety of vaccinations dwarfs any contentions otherwise. This suggests that for those who are compelled by spurious anti-vaccination material, no amount of data or evidence will create any semblance of an about-face on the issue (although there are those cases of illness-related 180 degree turns, and upticks in vaccination demand when new variants surge).
All of this in turn suggests that there is not skepticism or thoughtful hesitation over vaccination, but a surprising cynicism that meanders its way into COVID-related public narratives. What is far less clear is what is causing this regressive vaccination cynicism. Is it pandemic fatigue? Is it the legacy of medical abuses many oppressed groups, in particular African Americans, have faced? A pandemic cannot help but entangle government activity and the actions of scientists – is this cynicism than an extension of a longstanding cynicism toward government? Do we then conclude that tribalism and prioritization of political victory have overwhelmed the public discourse – so much so that facts and literal life-saving scientific achievements are of lesser importance to our citizens than temporal and superficial political wins?
Admittedly, these are leading questions, but they are not intended to be accusations wrapped in inquiry. While they do speculate, they are sincere. This author does not have any firm contention on their answers and certainly has not been compelled by any source or data set which moves the needle in one direction over the other. Rather what they are, are open questions to my fellow citizens. This is an issue where rightfully the majority of Americans have found common ground, but where those who are romanced by charlatanism are doing literal physical harm to our nation’s public health. We must ensure room for skepticism, questioning, and debate, but in this instance (and God forbid the next global health emergency) the elevation and admiration of nonsense, junk science, and unqualified speculation must be checked full-throatily by our public leaders. We must ensure that fringe and conspiracy are not given a veneer of credibility. We must, as responsible citizens, have the courage to tell our teammates they are wrong when they are wrong.
Sean M. Fischer, Ed.D.
Sean M. Fischer has spent 15 years as a senior leader in NJ’s higher education sector, spanning both open-admissions and selective-admissions institutions. In addition, he teaches college-level courses in United States History and United States Government. He is a lifelong New Jersey resident, presently residing in Vineland. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in history from Rowan University, a master’s degree in political science from Villanova University, and a Doctorate in education from Creighton University.
 These correlations are illustrative. Correlation should not be considered causal. The numbers trend when expanded further to the top and bottom 10. Biden secured 9/10 of the top vaccinated counties, whereas Trump secured 4/10 least vaccinated in 2020. Murphy secured 7/10 of the top vaccinated counties, whereas Ciattarelli secured 8/10 of the least vaccinated counties. NJ Data compiled from: https://stacker.com/new-jersey/counties-highest-covid-19-vaccination-rate-new-jersey; https://www.politico.com/election-results/2021/new-jersey/governor/; https://www.politico.com/2020-election/results/new-jersey/.
 These correlations are illustrative. Correlation should be considered causal. NJ Counties were compared to each other and ranked in order from most affluent to least affluent. NJ Data was compiled from: https://www.census.gov/.