The Vaccination Debate: A profile of last year’s vote and what it may tell us about COVID shots today

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By Paul Mills

We love our anniversaries. Newspapers typically feature them as in century and half century retrospectives. So, let’s now turn the clock back a bit, not 100 or even 50 years but just one year ago.

It’s late February 2020, the time when the first cases of community transmission of the Coronavirus were reported in the United States and just two weeks before Maine records its first positive case.

It’s thus the prelude to COVID-19, an acronym that to most still conjured up comparisons to a potentially approaching rain shower that would in any event pass over in a matter of days, not foreseen as a potentially paralyzing blizzard.

Maine was at the same time weighing in on a People’s Veto referendum aimed at overturning a recently passed law eliminating philosophical and religious exemptions for vaccination requirements for students attending public schools.

Seventy-three percent of Maine voters rejected the veto, that is, they upheld the new law that required student vaccinations against a variety of illnesses, the vote being 281-thousand to 105-thousand.

The newly developed COVID vaccines have not yet joined measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, polio, hepatitis, chickenpox, and influenza as those required of public school students. The vaccination debate thus continues, just as it did in the heated Maine plebiscite of a year ago at this time.

Though there is no present occasion to cast a ballot on vaccinations this year, there are ongoing tabulations on the extent to which Mainers are endorsing them. Not surprisingly the counties in Maine that were most supportive at the ballot box a year ago are also those with the greatest percentage of its citizens obtaining COVID vaccinations today.

The three counties turning in the highest percentage of support for vaccinations in last March’s referendum – Cumberland, Sagadahoc, and Lincoln – are the same whose residents are the likeliest to have so far had an arm that has taken at least one dose of a COVID jab. These three west and mid coastal counties each cast 75 percent of their votes for the law requiring public school vaccinations while each of them are the only ones with over 14 percent of its citizens who have so far taken a COVID vaccination

There is not yet an officially released breakdown among the nearly 500 cities towns, plantations, and voting districts, reports now being at the level of Maine’s sixteen counties. It is possible to revisit the returns from last year’s vote, however, at that more detailed level to check in on the alignment.

From this, a rather pronounced geographic tension emerges. Though 64 places voted against compulsory public school shots last year, none of them were among Maine’s 23 cities. Indeed, the largest of the 64 towns and voting districts to throw in its lot with the anti-vac movement, the Piscataquis County town of Guilford, has a population of a mere 1,521. All of those voting with the anti-vaccination movement – with the exception of Newry, home to Sunday River Ski area – were in the eastern half of the state.

A sampling of the outcome in such communities provides some quaint illustrations. Those in the libertarian camp would find allegorical significance that Waldo County’s Freedom voted 149 to 97 to overturn the compulsory vaccination law. The nearby town of Liberty did not quite fulfill such expectations, though it was closely divided, going 175 to 149 in favor of the law.

A town named for the cradle of democracy, Athens, also provides some consolation to those who would like the right to opt out of government mandated medical procedures. Citizens there, just 13 miles north of Skowhegan, voted 105 to 96 in support of such sentiments. Abutting Athens to the east is the town of Harmony, which voted the same way, 101 to 91, the town’s name being emblematic of a result that mirrored that of its neighbor.

Place names that most Maine people have seldom if ever heard from did make their voices known last year. It was in a way that demonstrates the cleavage that often exists between urban and rural Maine, one that seems likely to emerge again in the coming months as many but not all roll up their sleeves.

Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine; he can be reached by e-mail pmills@myfairpoint.net.

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