NEW LEXINGTON, Ohio (WCMH) — In general, more populous counties tend to have higher percentages of residents vaccinated for COVID-19. Major Ohio counties like Franklin, Cuyahoga and Delaware lead the state, while rural counties lag behind. But population may not be the best predictor of a place’s vaccinations.

NBC4 Investigates instead found a stronger correlation between a county’s vaccination percentage and how much it swung for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

On average, our analysis found, a county’s rank (1 to 88) in population was 15.75 spots off its rank in percentage of vaccinated residents.

A smaller gap, however, of 9.35 spots exists between a county’s rank in voting percentage for Trump and its rank in percentage of unvaccinated residents.

The scatter plot above shows a more pronounced trend than the first plot. A quarter of Ohio counties in the Trump-and-vaccination comparison were off by only two or fewer rankings, as opposed to just six counties in the population-and-vaccination comparison.

Officials hesitant at link

Those involved in politics have shied away from discussing possible connections between a person’s politics and their vaccination status. Gov. Mike DeWine’s office declined an interview on the topic and suggested it would be “offensive” to some Ohioans. And a spokesperson for Ohio’s GOP deferred comment to the governor’s office.

In Central Ohio, just over 33% of Perry County residents are vaccinated, 12th-lowest. And nearly three in four voters in the county of about 36,000 people chose Trump in 2020.

“Not interested,” the Perry County GOP replied to NBC4 Investigates’ request for comment. “Sounds to me you are picking on Republican and Donald trump (sic).”

Perry County GOP Trump vaccination county response NBC4 Investigates
In a Facebook message, the Perry County Ohio Republican Central Committee declines NBC4 Investigates’ request for an interview for this story. (Ben Orner/NBC4)

But when NBC4 Investigates traveled to Perry County this week, people in the county seat of New Lexington were open about their thoughts on politics and the vaccine.

Conversations in the community

“I’ve thought it was political from the beginning,” said Regina Knipe, who has not been vaccinated. “I’ve always told everybody I’ve talked to that I thought it was that.”

For those who have received the vaccine, they said the decision was personal, not political.

“My mom passed away in January of COVID,” said Tim Savage. “It just encouraged me to get the vaccine.”

Savage added, though, that conversations with his unvaccinated coworkers have become increasingly political in recent weeks.

“They think the government’s out to get you,” he said.

“I don’t know that it’s, ‘Because I’m a Republican, I’m not going to get a vaccine,’” said Dr. Bradley Wilson, who runs a family medicine practice in New Lexington and serves as Perry County’s coroner and medical director.

“These aren’t people that are generally going to get medical checkups on a routine basis, anyway. And I think their politics are probably more conservative because they’re blue collar workers – and rural at that.”

However, in Wilson’s 32 years of practicing medicine, he said he has never seen a therapy become more polarizing than COVID-19 vaccines.

“I tell my patients all the time – I say something they don’t like, I tell them I’m not a politician,” Wilson said, “I’m going to tell you what I think. Not what I think you want to hear.”

Combatting misinformation

When a patient asks him about the vaccine, Wilson advises that the risks of contracting the virus far outweigh the risks of getting vaccinated.

“You can debate the statistics with them and the reasons and the good science with it all you want, but they’re still their own masters,” Wilson said.  “We can’t force people to do this.”

Chief Deputy Doug Gill of the Perry County Sheriff’s Office has served as the county’s spokesperson since the coronavirus pandemic began. He said it’s been a challenge getting the message to residents that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.

“We did ads, we did social media, we did flyers,” Gill said. “We don’t really have media in our county, so we have a little bit of a harder time getting information out. We kind of rely on social media because we have our newspaper, which is local, comes out weekly.”

State health officials, too, have noted the spread of vaccine misinformation on social media.

“Unfortunately, I think there have been people who are sharing information in a very authoritative way that is not scientifically accurate,” Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, the Ohio Department of Health’s chief medical officer, told reporters Wednesday. “As a physician, that’s very distressing.”

The trend of Republican-heavy counties having lower vaccination is not just playing out in Ohio. A Kaiser Family Foundation study this month found counties that voted in greater numbers for Trump in 2020 tend to have lower vaccination percentages, and the polarization has grown since April.