SALT LAKE CITY — A county's political leaning has a large impact on its number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, a new study by Utah researchers found.
Study author Don Albrecht, executive director at Utah State University's Western Rural Development Center, said he wanted to understand which parts of the country were most and least affected by the pandemic.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has had severe negative health and economic impacts throughout the country," Albrecht said. "After 18 months, we are still struggling."
The study published recently in Rural Sociology noted that although large cities faced the highest rates of disease transmission and deaths at the onset of the pandemic, by March 2021 nonmetropolitan areas began seeing higher rates. According to researchers, early politicization of public health measures influenced adherence to health guidelines — and whether local governments would put health orders in place.
The new research comes as Utah continues to experience a spike in new coronavirus cases. Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature limited the governor's and mayors' powers to issue executive public health orders.
USU researchers noted nonmetro residents are more likely to vote Republican than those in urban settings.
"From the beginning of the pandemic, Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to take the threat of the virus seriously and to support efforts to control virus spread, whereas Republicans expressed greater concern for the economic and other impacts of health safety policies," according to the study.
Machine-learning data analysis "found that political views were the most important variable explaining per capita COVID-19 cases, while measures of disadvantage were the best predictors of COVID-19 deaths. Counties with high proportions of Trump voters had higher per capita cases, and in nonmetro areas, these counties had higher death rates," researchers wrote.
"This article makes it clear that during a pandemic, political views have consequences. This past summer, failure to follow the advice of medical experts has resulted in a surge of people unnecessarily becoming ill, pushing hospitals and their staffs to their breaking point. Despite new medications that provide some relief for the severely ill, death still takes a daily toll in the United States," Albrecht said in a news release.
"I hope that recognition of the role of political views as well as the continued need to provide adequate medical care will help elected officials make appropriate policies and individuals make better choices," he added.
Albrecht and his team conducted science-based research and combined it with the information they gathered from reaching out to rural communities, local families and decision-makers. They also found that rural, Trump-supporting areas had higher death rates, and that the best predictor of COVID-19 deaths is low levels of education, high poverty rates and a large number of marginalized groups.
New Utah data
On Wednesday, Utah health officials reported 1,885 new COVID-19 cases, as well as 11 deaths. Of the new cases, 416 were school-age children, according to the Utah Department of Health.
The rolling seven-day average for new cases now stands at 1,677, and the percent positivity rate of those tested is 13.3%.
On Wednesday, 570 patients were hospitalized with the disease in Utah — a decrease of 11 from the previous day's report. Referral intensive care units that can treat the most serious patients are 96.4% full; overall ICU use stand at 95.5%; and non-ICUs are 64.1% full, health department data shows.
Health care workers administered another 7,487 vaccine doses since Tuesday's report, bringing total vaccinations given in Utah to 3,356,865.
In the last 28 days, unvaccinated Utahns have faced five times greater risk of dying from COVID-19, 6.8 times greater risk of being hospitalized due to COVID-19, and 6 times greater risk of testing positive for COVID-19 than vaccinated people, the Utah Department of Health said in a statement. Since Feb. 1, the same group has experienced 4.8 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19, 5.1 times greater risk of being hospitalized due to COVID-19, and 4.4 times greater risk of testing positive for COVID-19 than vaccinated people.
So far, the state has confirmed 13,836 breakthrough cases in people who have been fully vaccinated as of more than two weeks ago. Of those breakthrough cases, 735 required hospitalization and 80 died.
Three deaths reported Wednesday occurred prior to September. The latest deaths include:
- A Washington County man older than 85, who was a long-term care facility resident when he died.
- A Utah County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Box Elder County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Sevier County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Weber County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Salt Lake County man, 65-84, long-term care facility resident.
- A Davis County man, older than 85, hospitalized.
- A Tooele County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Salt Lake County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Weber County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
- A Utah County man, 45-64, hospitalized.