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Red districts top COVID death charts

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Rep. Paul Gosar was among the first members of Congress to be touched by the coronavirus, announcing on March 8, 2020, that he would go into quarantine after coming in contact with an infected person at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Two years later, Mr. Gosar’s western Arizona district is battling for the ignominious honor of COVID-19 death king in Congress, with more than 4,000 of his constituents perishing.

He’s neck-and-neck with Rep. Daniel Webster, whose Central Florida district has logged more than 4,000 deaths, according to data tracked by Harvard University.

Both are Republicans, as are 20 others among the 30 congressional districts with the most COVID-19 deaths, according to data collected by Harvard University.

On the flip side, of the 30 House districts with the least COVID-19 deaths, 27 are held by Democrats.

Congress was riven along partisan lines before the pandemic, but the virus has managed to cleave even deeper divisions: Democrats have been inclined to embrace masks and mandates, with some going so far as to accuse their hesitant colleagues of endangering their lives. Republicans have leaned toward allowing people to weigh their own risks, and some have bucked the scientific consensus on vaccine effectiveness.

Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine, said he wasn’t surprised that Democratic areas of the country have fared better amid the pandemic.

“There were efforts made to push vaccinations, masking, school shutdowns and produce vaccination cards for entry into places,” Mr. Caplan said.

“The red state strategy in congressional districts tended to be that they were not going to take the damage from shutdowns and lockdowns,” he added. “They said, ‘We are not doing it and we will accept some price for doing that, and ideologically we are just not going to do mandates.’”

However, others suggest the death statistics might be more closely correlated with factors like age, education and socioeconomic status than political leanings.

Mr. Webster’s district, for instance, is home to The Villages retirement community, and more than 35% of his constituents are over age 65. It has been billed as the oldest congressional district.

Seniors are by far the most at risk of death from the coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mr. Caplan said another factor is that several of the hardest-hit congressional districts lack access to health care.

“Those tend to be poorer red areas, poorer parts of red states,” he said. “They just don’t have good access to health care. There are no doctors, no clinics, no pharmacies.”

He said that differs from more affluent and more urban areas, where the map is dotted with pharmacies.

Congress and COVID-19

While Mr. Gosar and Sen. Ted Cruz, both of whom went into quarantine after the 2020 CPAC, were the first lawmakers to be touched by the virus, they have since been joined by many others.

GovTrack.us counts hundreds of members of Congress who have quarantined after coming in contact with an infected person, and more than 140 who have publicly acknowledged they contracted COVID-19 while serving in office.

That includes 15 Senate Republicans and 66 House Republicans — including one who died from it.

Among House Democrats, 52 have gotten COVID-19 — including one who got it twice. And 10 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus have contracted the disease.

Until the delta and omicron variants the ratio was more lopsided, but Democrats have narrowed the gap in the last six months.

Mr. Webster is among the Republicans who contracted COVID-19. He announced the diagnosis in a tweet this January.

When it comes to policy, the congressman opposed the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates, but did promote the shots to constituents. As of September, his district ranked in the top third of vaccination rates, according to Harvard’s data.

Harvard counted 4,068 deaths in his district as of March 3.

Webster spokesperson Jaryn Emhof said they aren’t sure what to make of the Harvard data.

“While we grieve every life lost and our hearts go out to the loved ones, it is difficult to tell the accuracy of this study given lack of information about the metrics and data used,” he said.

But he did stress Florida’s and Mr. Webster’s emphasis on helping seniors grapple with the pandemic.

“Florida took early measures to protect nursing homes and long-term care facilities; prioritized vaccinating those 65 and older; and until the Biden administration revoked anti-body treatments, ensured treatments were widely available particularly in areas densely populated with seniors,” he said.

Mr. Gosar has been more outspoken on the virus, including being caught on tape encouraging anti-vaccination activists to “stay the course.”

His district registered 4,034 deaths as of March 3.

His office declined to comment.

The district with the best COVID-19 record is in New York, where Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks’ constituents recorded just 234 deaths.

Vermont Rep. Peter Welch, also a Democrat, is second. He represents the entire state, where 602 deaths have been recorded.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco-based district ranks fourth-best, with 688 deaths.

‘The public has … moved on’

Lawrence O. Gostin, professor of global health law at Georgetown University, said there is a “clear explanation” for the discrepancies between districts.

“Republicans have far lower vaccination rates than Democrats,” Mr. Gostin said in an email. “They’re also less likely to mask.”

“Vaccines are the single most effective way to prevent hospitalizations and deaths,” he said. “Because so many Republicans are unvaccinated they are at greater risk of death.”

Harvard tracked vaccinated data through Sept. 1 and found that Democrats represent the lion’s share of congressional districts with the highest percentage of fully vaccinated people.

Mrs. Pelosi’s 12th Congressional District in California led the pack at the time with over 74% completed vaccinations.

Republicans, meanwhile, overwhelmingly represented the districts with the lowest percentage of vaccinated rates.

Rep. Jason Smith’s 8th Congressional District in Missouri tops that chart with roughly 32% of the population vaccinated. Mr. Gosar’s district fell in the bottom fifth of districts.

On liberal-leaning message boards, some commenters have gleefully celebrated deaths of prominent vaccine resisters, cheering the reduction of conservative voters from the voting pool.

But John Couvillon, founder of JMC Analytics and Polling, said the political impact likely has been minimal. Even in the hardest-hit districts, deaths represent a small percentage of the electorate.

“While any death is certainly a terrible thing to happen, if you segway to the subject of elections impact I think it would be minimal,” Mr. Couvillon said. “You are talking about half of a percent of the district, and you are talking over two years.”

Mr. Couvillon said whatever the divisions before, the public’s attitude seems to be gelling now toward a more relaxed stance.

“I think the public has basically moved on from a feeling of having confidence in mitigation efforts that are being proposed by various public health and or governmental entities, as evidenced by this race to all of a sudden start removing restrictions on both the left and right,” Mr. Couvillon said.

Officials in Washington are rushing to catch up to where their constituents are.

The House of Representatives, which has been under a mask mandate since Congress returned from a COVID-19 break in the spring of 2020, canceled the mandate just in time for President Biden’s State of the Union address.

House members who did not wear masks in the chamber previously had been subject to fines of $500 for not wearing a mask on their first offense and $2,500 for subsequent violations.

The New York Times reported in late December that Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Andrew Clyde, both of Georgia, had together amassed more than $100,000 in fines.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

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