Misinformation Runs Rampant Amid Delta Variant Spread

As a red-blue vaccine divide emerges, Fox News sows doubt

The highly contagious Delta variant has become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States. As of July 3, it accounted for 51.7 percent of new cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The variant is spreading unevenly, with higher rates of spread occurring in regions that have much higher proportions of unvaccinated residents, many of which also voted for Donald Trump in 2020. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released on July 4, about 29 percent of Americans say they are unlikely to get a vaccine shot. Just six percent of Democrats say they are unlikely to get vaccinated, versus 47 percent of Republicans, with 38 percent of Republicans saying they will definitely not get vaccinated.

One reason that those on the right are less likely to get the vaccine may be misinformation on Fox News. While there is COVID misinformation on the left and the right on the Internet, Fox News has a much larger reach than the Internet alone. The channel regularly tops primetime cable news ratings. According to Pew, 69 percent of Republicans trust Fox News as a source of news, versus 38 percent who trust news on the Internet. Just during this past week, Fox News' primetime shows featured guests and had segments with multiple anti-vaccine arguments that minimized the seriousness of COVID. 

Another reason that many on the right are choosing not to get the vaccine is that Donald Trump has made equivocal statements that bolster anti-vaccine talking points. "I would recommend it, and I would recommend it to a lot of people that don’t want to get it — and a lot of those people voted for me, frankly,” he told Fox News in March. He added, "We have our freedoms, and we have to live by that, and I agree with that also.” Many unvaccinated people only hear the second half of that statement. Despite having a political career built on getting publicity, Trump did not get vaccinated in front of cameras as President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris did. Just 36 percent of unvaccinated people think Trump has been vaccinated, versus 54 percent overall.

Delta is spreading through Trump country. According to statistics aggregated by outbreak.info, a COVID data site run by Scripps research, eight of the top ten states that have detected the Delta variant at the highest rates voted for Trump in 2020. (This data has some limitations, including uneven rates of sequencing, selective sampling, and a bias towards older samples, which may even undercount the newer Delta variant.) According to data from the CDC collected in June, Delta accounts for 74 percent of new cases in Mountain (Utah, Colorado, the Dakotas, and Wyoming) states and 80 percent of Great Plains (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska) states. However, the variant is accounting for only 33 percent of new cases in liberal New England. There are some exceptions to this pattern; in the narrowly blue swing state of Nevada, Delta is spreading rapidly, and only 40 percent of residents are vaccinated.

COVID hospitalizations and deaths are significantly down -- around 18,000 hospitalizations and 220 deaths per day, compared with 135,000 hospitalizations and over 3,000 deaths per day last January. However, in contrast to six months ago, hospitalizations and deaths now are almost completely avoidable because of the widespread availability of vaccines in the United States. 99.7 percent of new COVID cases are among the unvaccinated.

Meanwhile, the variant continues to spread in the heartland. Laramie County, Wyo. Health Officer Stan Hartman told the Wall Street Journal, “We’re fighting two pandemics. The first is the disease itself. The second is the misinformation out there.” 

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