As soon as Ohio opened up its coronavirus vaccine eligibility to residents over 70, Jennifer Salzano threw herself into finding an appointment for her mom, who’s 72 and has heart disease and diabetes.
For the next few days, Salzano was hunched over her phone, scouring dozens of Kroger, CVS, and Walgreens sites for any appointment near her mom’s home in Columbus, the state capital. At midnight, when a slew of new appointment times would get released, she’d dash to the family computer and try again.
The result was always the same: no availability.
“I was kind of like, this is never going to happen,” Salzano told The Daily Beast.
But then her dad suggested she might have better luck if she looked in the parts of Ohio where denial about COVID’s risks was high—and demand for vaccines was low.
“So I just googled ‘Trump landslides in Ohio,’” then I looked at the nearest county and the biggest city in that county, and I found an appointment,” Salzano told The Daily Beast.
“The whole thing took me three minutes,” she added.
Three months after the Pfizer and Moderna shots began rolling off of trucks in the U.S., polls show that aversion to the new coronavirus vaccines remains significantly higher among Trump supporters and Republicans than among Democrats and Biden supporters.
This, public health experts say, means a new kind of disparity in the country’s vaccine rollout, with far more jabs available in the country’s conservative districts than its progressive ones—the latter being where many of the people of color at high coronavirus risk reside.
Still, for city residents with a car and time for a road trip, this disparity can quickly become an opportunity.
“There are any number of rural counties here in Tennessee where they have vaccines available. Any adult 18 and up in the state can come in who wants it,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious disease at Vanderbilt University, told The Daily Beast. “And we’re seeing this availability throughout these rural, more conservative areas.”
That appointment that Salzano found for her mom was in Licking County, directly east of Columbus. More than 63 percent of the Licking electorate had voted for former President Donald Trump. In Franklin County, the Democratic stronghold that includes Columbus, only 34 percent of voters chose to re-elect the former president.
When Salzano’s aunt became eligible two weeks later, she also helped her find an appointment in Licking County. And once she became eligible herself, Salzano, who lives in deep-blue Chicago, found an appointment that same week in bright-red Grundy County, Illinois, where Trump had nabbed 62 percent of the vote.
Salzano is far from the only resident of Blue America to figure out that a coveted vaccine slot is not equally coveted in every corner of her state.
For the first two days after Nebraska opened vaccine eligibility to adults over 18, 34-year-old Lincoln resident Megan Timperly sat at her computer with tabs open for the sites of the nearby Walmart and Hy-Vee pharmacies, hitting reload. Finally, “a cynical and older veteran I play Dungeons and Dragons with,” as she put it, suggested she look at maps of voting trends and book accordingly.
In all of 20 seconds, Timperly said, she and two of her friends had all made appointments at the Hy-Vee in Norfolk for this coming Saturday. In Norfolk’s Madison County, just 22 percent of voters had picked Biden in 2020. In Lancaster County, where Timperly lives, 53 percent of voters went with Biden.
“It was so easy, and really tragic,” she told The Daily Beast.
“There should be no appointments available anywhere, because people should be rushing to get vaccinated,” Timperly added. “But they're not, and they’re not because they've been told all along that it's a hoax, or the vaccine is dangerous. Just lies upon lies.”
Schaffner did not directly point fingers, but he did tell The Daily Beast that a lot of the vaccine hesitancy in conservative areas is because of the “political veneer” that has tainted all information about the virus since its arrival in the U.S. last year.
“It’s not just disdain for the vaccine, but it’s disdain for the idea that this virus is something we should take seriously,” Schaffner told The Daily Beast.
President Trump and Melania Trump each received their vaccines in January while he was still in the White House, but that information did not become public until six weeks after he’d left office. And as The Daily Beast reported, the former president has continued to blow off requests from his former advisers to help convince his supporters that the vaccines are safe, effective, and necessary.
Of course, plenty of Republicans support vaccination. On Tuesday, Gallup released a poll showing that slightly more than half of Republicans, 54 percent, said they planned to get vaccinated or had already received the vaccine. But that pales next to the 94 percent of Democrats who say they have been vaccinated or plan to be.
Shelley Ann Hendrickson, a 46-year-old resident of suburban Chicago, said she saw that skepticism on display after she made the nearly five-hour drive to get her jab in Quincy, Illinois.
As she picked up food at Panera Bread before her appointment, Hendrickson said, an unmasked woman kept glaring at Hendrickson, who was the only masked person in line. Outside in the parking lot, she said, she noticed the woman getting in a car with a bumper sticker: a circle with a drawing of a mask and a line through it.
“There was a lot of that there,” Hendrickson told The Daily Beast.
She’d learned about availability at that site through the Facebook group Chicago Vaccine Hunters, where people can crowdsource tips for getting a vaccine appointment. Quincy is the seat of Adams County, where Trump walked away with 72 percent of the vote in 2020.
Even at the vaccine site, she said, the nurses assumed she was an out-of-towner.
“One of the first things they asked was, ‘Where’d you drive down from?’” Hendrickson told The Daily Beast. “But they were excited so many people were coming down to Quincy.”
Hendricks, whose sister lives in Quincy, said everyone she knows in the town has already been fully vaccinated. Indeed, in Adams County, 31 percent of residents have also been fully vaccinated, the highest rate in Illinois, suggesting it is far from dominated by anti-vaxxers.
But that still leaves thousands unvaccinated with hundreds of available appointments each day—a reflection of both politics but also a nationally haphazard rollout. Grundy County, where Salzano easily nabbed her own appointment, has a vaccination rate of just 13 percent.
Hendrickson said one friend told her she’d been walking past a pharmacy in town, when an employee stuck her head out and offered her a jab. She’d already received one, so she declined.
And, Timperly said, the Trump counties loophole creates yet another disparity: these jabs are only available to people with the means and time to travel. On Tuesday, the same day that New York state opened vaccine eligibility to all residents 30 and older, the state site had zero appointments available in New York City. Seven hours to the north, in Potsdam—in St. Lawrence County, where Trump won 55 percent of the vote—nearly 3,000 appointments were available.
“The availability is only amazing if you have a car and gas money,” Timperly said.
Hendrickson said she became eligible for the vaccine through her manufacturing job shortly before she made her appointment down in Quincy in late February.
Just last week, she finally received an email from DuPage County, where she lives.
“And it said, ‘Hey if you want to schedule your vaccine, you’re eligible,’” she said, laughing. “So yeah, I got it sooner. I probably still wouldn’t have my first shot if I hadn’t made that trip.”