When the COVID-19 vaccine rolled out, Clyde Muchmore was ready to drive across Oklahoma to get it.
“At the very, very first, all we knew was that a whole lot of people were dying,” recalled Muchmore, 80, of Oklahoma City. He scheduled a vaccine, he said, “on absolutely the first day I could.”
Nearly half of Oklahoma’s overall population has declined the COVID-19 vaccine. Yet more than 90 percent of seniors in the state have completed at least one round of inoculations, and almost two-thirds have received at least one booster. Both figures fall close to national averages.
The same pattern plays out in other Republican-majority states. Public health data suggests red-state resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine is largely the province of the young. Seniors in the reddest states are inoculated and boosted at nearly the same rate as older Americans overall. The trend holds in Wyoming and West Virginia, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Idaho, all states where large majorities of voters cast ballots for former President Trump in 2020.
Public health experts say older Americans in conservative states have embraced the COVID-19 vaccine as a matter of survival, prioritizing it above partisan politics, libertarian impulses and fears of government overreach.
“For me, the COVID vaccine was really a no-brainer,” said Massimo Poggio, 75, of St. George, Utah, a solid Trump state in 2020. “It had nothing to do with my political views. It had to do with the feeling that I was at higher risk. I have family and friends who lost people to COVID-19.”
Poggio scheduled his first COVID-19 vaccine in January 2021. He scheduled his third booster for Friday, in tandem with his seasonal flu shot: “It seemed to be the responsible thing to do.”
In the five reddest states, as measured in the 2020 election, overall COVID-19 vaccination rates lag well below the national average of 68 percent. But seniors in those states are vaccinated at rates ranging from 86 percent in Wyoming and West Virginia to 91 percent in Oklahoma. In the United States as a whole, 92 percent of seniors have completed at least one round of vaccines.
“People who are old recognized what was happening, particularly in the earliest stages of the pandemic, and they saw who was dying,” said Susan Hassig, a professor of epidemiology at Tulane University in New Orleans. “They saw their friends getting really, really sick.”
In Oklahoma City and its surrounding county, seniors have sought out the COVID-19 vaccine in waves, mirroring the peaks and valleys of the disease itself. Sixty-five percent of seniors in Oklahoma County completed vaccinations by May 2021, in the first months when shots were available. By July, at the start of the delta wave, 81 percent of older residents had been vaccinated. The rate climbed to 90 percent in December, early in the omicron wave.
“A lot of right-leaning seniors realized that the risk of death and hospitalization was high enough that they weren’t really willing to put politics over their health,” said Aaron Wendelboe, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Oklahoma.
Today, vaccination rates in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties exceed 95 percent among seniors. In the state’s rural Latimer County, by contrast, only 55 percent of seniors are inoculated.
Rural Oklahomans, Wendelboe said, sometimes see COVID-19 as a problem of the big cities. Some Oklahomans have become swept up in the anti-vaccine movement, campaigning against the vaccine on social media and call-in radio.
Muchmore, the Oklahoma City senior, said he doesn’t know anyone in that movement. Instead, he sees individual Oklahomans accepting the vaccine or refusing it for myriad reasons, including concerns about side effects, a personal calculus of family health risks and a shared sense of outrage at the government telling people what to do.
“There is general resentment among people in Oklahoma against the heavy hand,” Muchmore said. “There is irritation that people are forced to give up their jobs or retire from the Army” if they refuse the vaccine. “I hear a lot of complaints about that, and I share them.”
But that didn’t stop Muchmore from getting vaccinated. He received his third booster shot last week.
COVID-19 politics have burned hotter in some states than others.
In West Virginia, “we had a Republican governor,” Jim Justice, “who was out there pushing vaccines,” said Mike Pushkin, chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party. “When the vaccine was new, it was one of the easiest states to get vaccinated in. We had people showing up from New York, from Connecticut, from the other states because it was easier to get a vaccine here.”
After a brisk rollout, “I think we hit a wall,” Pushkin said. “Everyone who wanted a vaccine in West Virginia got one, and then it stopped.” The statewide vaccination rate stands at 59 percent overall, 86 percent among seniors.
In Idaho, activists gathered in the spring of 2021 for mask burnings. The state’s Republican lieutenant governor opposed mask mandates and once suggested, incorrectly, that vaccinated Idahoans were more likely to die.
The anti-vaccine campaign resonated in Idaho, a state with a history of opting out of childhood immunizations. The statewide immunization rate dipped last year to 80.2 percent, dangerously low for maintaining herd immunity to polio, among other epidemiological horrors.
“There’s what I could call an overly high value placed on parental control of their kids,” said Melissa Wintrow, a Democrat who serves on the Idaho state Senate. “It’s not very difficult to not be vaccinated in Idaho.”
Idaho’s overall COVID-19 vaccination rate stands at 55 percent. Among seniors, by contrast, 89 percent have completed at least one round of shots and 71 percent are boosted, near the national averages.
“When you think of older Idahoans, they’re not plugged into social media,” Wintrow said. “And I think that means they’re not getting the misinformation and conspiracy theories. People in this generation, they lived through other epidemics. They know about polio. They know about smallpox. They trust and believe in science.”
Jerry Leonard of Moscow, Idaho, is 72 and fully vaccinated. He believes older Idahoans are more likely than the younger generation to heed the advice of public health leaders.
“We see doctors a lot,” Leonard said. “The medical community in Idaho has been on top of this. And we listen to them. And it’s been a pretty clear message.”
In the months since the mask burnings, COVID-19 protests in Idaho have died down. People in the state feel less pressure to vaccinate in secret, older Idahoans say. Mask wearing is both less common and more tolerated.
“I got my booster at a Black Crowes concert right here in town,” said Wintrow, the state senator. “I posted it on social media. I got more likes on that than I did on The Black Crowes.”
Public health leaders hope older Americans will ultimately settle into an annual routine, receiving a COVID-19 booster along with a seasonal flu shot. Roughly two-thirds of older Americans receive annual flu vaccines.
Already, more than two-thirds of seniors in most deep-red states have received at least one COVID-19 booster, not far behind the national average of 71 percent for that age group.
A much smaller share have scheduled second or third boosters. Nationally, 44 percent of seniors have received two or more COVID-19 booster shots.
“The perception is that the virus isn’t as problematic, even though we’re still losing 300, 400 people a day to something that is almost completely preventable,” said Hassig, the Tulane epidemiologist. “That’s like two airplanes falling out of the sky.”
President Biden recently declared the pandemic over before walking back the remark. That comment did not sit well with Hassig and many of her peers.
“This virus has tricked us before,” she said.