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UC study says vaccination gap is about more than politics. It's also about access to care

UC vax study map.jpg
Graphic/UC Digital Epidemiology Lab
A map of vaccine coverage in the United States. The darkest colors of purple reflect the lowest rates of vaccination; lighter blue reflects higher rates of vaccination.

America has seen a big divide in COVID vaccinations. And it's not all about politics, a new study says.

University of Cincinnati assistant professor of geography Dr. Diego Cuadros contributed to the study out now in the Lancet Regional Health journal. He says the big gaps in vaccination rates between various communities are a way to map broader disparities in health care access.

The study analyzed vaccination rates and health care capacity in 2,417 U.S. counties and found a causal relationship between counties with low capacity and low vaccination rates.

More than 70% of the communities with the lowest levels of vaccination are rural, Cuadros says. And while on first blush it might seem intuitive to chalk that up to vaccine hesitancy due to those areas' generally conservative political leanings, researchers say there is a lot more going on.

"Many people were thinking, 'Oh, these are just political views that were interfering or influencing vaccination uptake,' " Cuadros says. "But we were interested in going just a little bit beyond to see if maybe there were some different drivers."

What they found is also somewhat intuitive — but when mapped out can help policymakers and health care officials address health disparities beyond COVID, from specific diseases to overall mortality rates.

Communities with low vaccination rates tended to have the fewest hospitals, health clinics and other infrastructure. They also tended to have fewer health care professionals.

"They have lower health care capacity, for example, lower numbers of physicians and lower numbers of workers trained to apply the vaccines," Cuadros said.

Cuadros suggested putting more resources into measures deployed in other countries like mobile vaccine centers to bridge the gaps.

"That's why we need to start thinking about what kinds of alternative solutions we can have for those areas that are underserved in terms of health care infrastructure and health care services," he says.

Nick Swartsell is a general assignment reporter for WVXU. Before his current role, he worked on the station’s Cincinnati Edition program as assistant producer and was a journalist for outlets in Cincinnati, Washington, D.C., and Texas prior to that. When he’s not reporting, he likes exploring places he probably shouldn’t on his bike, taking photos, and growing corn, tomatoes and peppers that are, in all honesty, much too hot for any practical use. He is from Hamilton. You can find him at @nswartsell on Twitter.