This map shows vaccination rates for each county. Red and pink are the lowest; green the highest. Courtesy of The Daily Yonder.

“Blasting masks and vaccines, residents tell Pittsylvania County supervisors to ‘stand against tyranny’” 

Danville Register & Bee, Sept. 22 

“Cases plummet in Tennessee schools following mask mandates.” 

Bristol Herald-Courier, Sept. 23.

The good news: Virus infection rates are starting to come down. 

The not-so-good news: They’re still high. The Virginia Department of Health shows the current rate in the state is about what it was in early February. You remember early February. Not the best time, right? 

The only difference between then and now is that then vaccines were starting to roll out so we had some hope that we’d beat this thing. Now vaccines are here, and have been here for months, and we’re nowhere close to beating this thing. 

Why? Umm, it’s pretty obvious. Some people, too many people, aren’t getting vaccinated, and they’re the ones making life difficult for everybody – vaccinated and unvaccinated alike. 

That’s especially the case here in Southwest and Southside Virginia. 

This week The Daily Yonder, a website specializing in rural issues that does a lot of data-driven stories produced a report that showed virus trends across the country on a county-by-county basis.

It showed the highest infection rates in Virginia are generally in Southwest and Southside. It also showed that the rates there have been rising even as they’re dropping statewide. 

Meanwhile, Virginia Department of Health statistics show that the lowest vaccination rates are in Southwest and Southside. 

Gosh, high infection rates and low vaccination rates – you think there might be some connection? 

Let’s look at the numbers. 

Vaccination rates for each county. See Virginia Department of Health website for interactive version. Courtesy of VDH.

The lowest vaccine rate in Virginia is in Carroll County – where 45.1% of the adult population (and 38.7% of the total population) has received at least one dose. Meanwhile, the infection rate there went up nearly 30% last week from the week before. The virus also claimed one more life there, bringing the county’s virus-related death total to 84. If a band of terrorists showed up in Carroll and gunned down 84 people, you’d think people would be loading up their shooting irons and going out to hunt them down before the feds ever arrived. Or at least that’s how we’d like to think of ourselves. Instead, a different kind of terrorist – a microscopic one – has shown up and most of the adults in Carroll apparently couldn’t care less. They’re certainly not fighting back in the easiest, most effective way. 

Next door in Patrick County the vaccination rate is scarcely better – 46.6% of adults have gotten one dose, which amounts to 39.8% of the total population. I prefer the adult vaccination rate because obviously kids under 12 aren’t getting vaccinated so it seems a better measure of who can get the vaccine (although measuring 12 and up and would be better yet). However, many national and international sites only use the total population figure so I’ll stick with that because it makes for apples-to-apples comparisons later on. The other big laggard in Virginia is Lee County, which statistically fits between Carroll and Patrick with a one-dose rate of 46.1% for the adult population and comes in slightly behind Patrick with a rate of 39.4% for the total population. 

Why are these counties so low? Ultimately, I don’t know, but let’s dispense with some reasons that don’t apply. It’s not simply because they’re pro-Trump or pro-Republican counties, which is one common way some people like to describe the vaccine divide. There may be some correlation between political affiliation and vaccination rates but it’s not a perfect one. Roanoke County is a strong Republican county, too, but it has a one-dose adult vaccination rate of 73.9%, which is higher than some Democratic localities. The city of Roanoke, which is as deep blue as Roanoke County is deep red, has a one-dose adult vaccination rate of 66%, so in the Roanoke Valley politics sure don’t seem to apply very well. 

Now, there are some obvious differences there: Roanoke County is a suburb, which means it’s generally affluent. Roanoke is a central city. There are obvious differences in education and income that create cultural differences in our society today. 

So maybe it’s not fair to compare Carroll County’s vaccination rate with Roanoke County’s. Instead, let’s compare it to other rural counties. A lot of the vaccine divide is described as a rural-urban divide. That difference does show up but a county’s rural character is not always the driving factor. 

In Virginia, it’s hard to get more rural than the counties on the Northern Neck; they are the flatland, bayside cousins of Southwest and Southside. And yet what do we find? In Lancaster County, 77.4% of adults and 67.6% of the total population have had at least one dose of the vaccine. In Northumberland County, 71.6% of adults have; 63.2% of everybody. Across the river in Middlesex County, the rate is 71.4% for adults and 62.7% for everybody. Those are all rural, Republican counties, yet they have a vaccination rate far higher than many rural, Republican counties in Southwest and Southside. (And for what it’s worth, Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for governor, made some pretty passionate arguments during this week’s debate about why people should get vaccinated).

So if it’s not being rural and it’s not being Republican, what is it? Is it because these counties are more remote? Maybe, but that doesn’t seem the problem, either. Those counties by the Chesapeake Bay are pretty remote in their own ways. And nationally, we see some very rural and very remote counties with much higher vaccination rates. 

It’s hard to get more rural and more remote than Aroostook County, the northernmost county in Maine. This is a county that went hard for Donald Trump. It’s also a county where 59.1% of the total population has been vaccinated, which means a higher percentage – likely somewhere in the 60s – of the adult population has been vaccinated.

The Daily Yonder also has a good county-by-county map of vaccination rates. The screenshot is at the top of this piece but I recommend going to their site for the interactive version where you can click on each county and get stats. Either way, you’ll see lots of rural, remote counties that are posting far better vaccination rates than most of Southwest and Southside – all of Maine, the upper peninsula of Michigan, the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, parts of Arizona, Alaska, New Mexico and Colorado. So it’s not all rural counties that are vaccine-hesitant, it’s just some rural counties – and for our purposes today, many of those are in Virginia. 

Why? I don’t have a good answer for that. All I know is what the statistics show.

Some more comparisons: The most vaccinated locality in Virginia is Albemarle County, where 82.7% of adults and 72.2% of the total population have had at least one dose. That’s almost twice as high as in Carroll, Lee and Patrick. And what do we find? 

The virus rate in Albemarle is almost half what it is in Carroll, both cumulatively and narrowed down to look at just the past two weeks. (The Daily Yonder’s analysis shows the rate in Albemarle has dropped from a rate of 250.6 cases per 100,000 in early September to 240.6 per 100,000 last week, while Carroll’s rose from 359.2 to 466.6). 

That comparison is the most dramatic but others are similar – high vaccination rates overlap with low virus rates. Don’t like having to wear a mask? Don’t blame the government; blame the people who refuse to get vaccinated. It’s not as if they have a better idea on how to beat the virus.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. Reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org...