Vaccination rates by county. Courtesy of Virginia Department of Health.

One year ago today, the first COVID-19 vaccination in Virginia was administered. Yolanda Dumas, an emergency room worker in Norfolk, got the jab, amid much ceremony.

It seemed like the end to this pandemic was finally in sight.

One year later, it’s clearly not, and despite the widespread availability of vaccines, there are still some localities in Virginia where most of the population is still unvaccinated.

Those are mostly in Southwest Virginia, with a few others in Southside and elsewhere:

Carroll County: 42.8% with at least one dose, 38.3% fully vaccinated.

Patrick County: 44.4% with at least one dose, 39.5% fully vaccinated.

Craig County: 46.9% with at least one dose, 42.4% fully vaccinated

Lee County: 47% with at least one dose, 41.9% fully vaccinated.

Prince Edward County: 47.7% with at least one dose, 43.1% fully vaccinated

Grayson County: 48% with at least one dose, 43% fully vaccinated.

Tazewell County: 48.3% with at least one dose, 41.4% fully vaccinated.

Wythe County: 48.9% with at least one dose, 42.1% fully vaccinated.

Lynchburg: 49.2% with at least one dose, 44.0% fully vaccinated.

Page County: 49.7% with at least one dose, 45.6% fully vaccinated.

When Gov. Ralph Northam expressed his frustration with the unvaccinated in a recent interview with Cardinal News, these were the figures he was referring to.

For context, these figures are perfectly in line with countries that we’d think of as Third World or developing countries.

Page County is barely more vaccinated with Paraguay, where 48% have had at least one dose. If you go by the fully vaccinated column, then Patrick County is barely more vaccinated than Paraguay, where 39% have had a full dose. (You can find all the state data on the Virginia Department of Health website.)

Carroll County’s 42.8% partial vaccination rate puts it in the company of Jordan (42%) and Botswana (41%). Its 38.3% fully vaccinated figure puts it slightly ahead of Bolivia (37%).

How can this be? If those countries have low vaccination rates, we can write that off to them being poor countries with weak public health systems and an uneducated or at least uninformed citizenry. None of that applies here, though. So why are these vaccination rates so low?

It’s not as if our high vaccination rates are particularly high, either. Virginia’s most vaccinated locality is now Arlington, where 83.8% of the population has received at least one dose, and 73.8% are fully vaccinated. If Arlington were its own country, it would be tied for ninth in the world – with Qatar, Singapore, South Korea, Argentina and Canada in the one-dose category. It’s hard to argue with 83.8% Other localities would rank much lower, though. The most vaccinated locality in Southwest and Southside Virginia is Roanoke County, where 70.3% of the population has had at least one dose and 63.9% are fully vaccinated. That puts Roanoke County on a plane with … Mongolia, where 70% have had at least one dose and 67% are fully vaccinated. Or El Salvador, where 69% have had at least one dose and 64% are fully vaccinated.

It is fashionable in some quarters to say that the great divide in our vaccination rates is an urban-rural thing, or, perhaps, a liberal-conservative thing. It is true that the vaccine has become politicized here in a way that it hasn’t been in other countries. Here’s a case where American exceptionalism is not a pretty thing. The United States currently has a partial vaccination rate of 72%; there are 48 countries who rank higher than us. This is not exactly a category where we can proudly chant “We’re Number 1! We’re Number 1!” Many of those 48 countries ahead of us have conservative governments, so any American conservatives who are feeling vaccine-resistant are the ones who are out of step with their fellow conservatives around the world, which starts to raise the question of whether their hesitance is really a product of their conservatism – or something else.

I’ve always been skeptical of the urban/rural, liberal/conservative explanation for the vaccine divide. Those may, indeed, be factors, but there are so many exceptions that some other explanation seems required.

For instance, Roanoke County votes strongly Republican and Roanoke city votes strongly Democratic – yet the county’s vaccination rate (70.3%) is decidedly higher than the city’s (60.4%). That obviously can’t be explained by ideology but could possibly be explained by other factors – income, education and so forth. Nor can we simply say that conservative rural areas (generally a redundant phrase) are naturally vaccine hesitant, because there are plenty of conservative rural areas with high vaccination rates – at least relatively speaking, in the context of America’s overall so-so performance. Lancaster County on the Northern Neck is a county that routinely votes Republican, yet it has one of the highest vaccination rates in the state – 73.8% are partially vaccinated there, 66.8% fully vaccinated. So why is it so much more highly vaccinated than parts of Southwest Virginia? We see the same thing nationally. Northern Maine and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the Iron Range of Minnesota are all pretty conservative and pretty remote, yet they boast pretty high vaccination rates, with figures above 60% and sometimes above 70%. There are some rural counties in Montana – Montana! – with rates above 70%.

So why are parts of rural Virginia still so low? I don’t know, and I don’t like questions where I don’t know the answer. The New York Times had a column this fall that posited the real vaccination divide is between those who have a relationship with the health system and those who don’t. Is that it?

Here’s why the politicization of vaccines is such a mystery to me: We already require a lot of other vaccines. Why the controversy here and not there? Virginia requires 11 different immunizations before a child can attend school – for polio, chickenpox, hepatitis A and B, measles, mumps, diphtheria, tetanus and a whole bunch of other things with gruesome scientific names. Are the people objecting to vaccine mandates for COVID-19 also objecting to these? If not, why not? What’s the difference? If these anti-vaxxers step on a nail, will they say, “No tetanus shot for me!”? If liberals say we need to do X and conservatives say we need to do Y, I can usually understand both arguments. On this, though, I am completely baffled.

And with that we come to Virginia’s COVID-denying congressman, Rep. Bob Good, R-Campbell County, who once called this a “fake pandemic.” Over the weekend The Washington Post ran a story about Good and, in the Post’s words, his evolution “from quiet Falwell acolyte to bombastic Marjorie Taylor Greene ally.” In an interview with the Post, Good discussed his views on COVID-19:

In an interview, asked what he believes the government should do to mitigate the pandemic, since he has not supported any of its measures, Good suggested the government should have done nothing. He presented a hypothetical world in which the government never even uttered the word “covid,” never introduced mask mandates, never closed businesses or schools — so imagine, he said, “we never heard of covid.”

How many of us would be saying: ‘What’s been going on for 18 months? People around us are dying’?” Good said. “We’re 18 months in, and I don’t even know if I know anybody, on a personal level, who succumbed to the virus. … And I know thousands of people personally, because of the nature of what I did at Liberty [University].”

Is Good saying there’s no such thing as COVID? The Post points out that state health department data shows that more than 1,300 people in his district have died from COVID. In his home county, 152 people have died. And he’s never heard of any of them? That does seem astonishing for someone in public life – I certainly know people who have died from COVID, I still have the number for one of them saved in “contacts” on my phone – but perhaps more astonishing is the idea that because he never heard of any of these people, the pandemic somehow doesn’t exist. I don’t personally know anyone who was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan but does that mean those wars were really produced on some Hollywood sound stage? And the government should have done nothing? Is not one of the first functions of government to protect its citizens from foreign threats? If the government’s not supposed to say anything, then maybe we don’t need the Centers for Disease Control, after all. Or, at the state level, the Department of Health. This goes beyond baffling; this goes all the way to bizarre. But it does help explain why the vaccination rate in Good’s home county is on a par with Bangladesh – and the infection rate is higher.

Dwayne Yancey

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