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277,000 More Women Than Men Are Vaxed In South Carolina: How State Health Officials Are Approaching the COVID Vaccine Gender Gap

Men represent about 49 percent of South Carolinians, but 54 percent of COVID deaths.
CDC File Photo
Men represent about 49 percent of South Carolinians, but 54 percent of COVID deaths.

An awful lot of research and quite a few surveys show how much men hate going to the doctor.

In very polite terms, Dr. Jane Kelly, South Carolina’s assistant state epidemiologist, says that men simply access healthcare far less frequently than women, “even when they have a chronic medical condition such as diabetes or hypertension.”

It’s probably not a coincidence that she picked those two diseases as example. They are both high up on the list of conditions COVID-19 zeroes in on.

And that’s relevant when talking about men and COVID because that male tendency to avoid going to the doctor, to get regular checkups, to set up preventive visits, or to get vaccines updated tracks closely to how far behind males of every age group lag behind females when it comes to vaccination against COVID-19.

Numbers change rapidly (and usually for the worse) in a pandemic, but as of Sept. 15, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) reports that roughly 277,000 more women than men in South Carolina are vaccinated. That’s out of about 2.5 million overall vaccinations, and the gap exists at every age.

According to data from DHEC and the U.S. Census, males make up about 49 percent of South Carolinians, but only about 45 percent of males eligible to be vaccinated (that’s age 12 and older) have received a shot.

That tracks almost exactly with the fact that 55 percent of COVID-19 deaths in this state are male (even though more females actually contract the virus).

The gulf between male and female when it comes to who’s vaccinated in South Carolina starts big and gets bigger with every new age group. DHEC breaks numbers down in 10-year blocks; the disparity starts at around 8,000 more girls ages 12 to 19 and escalates to almost 30,000 more women ages 25 to 34. By the time the numbers get to age 65-plus, there’s a gap of more than 100,000.

Part of this, Dr, Kelly says, has to do with the fact that above age 65, there are increasingly more women than men overall. It also has to do with the fact that most healthcare jobs, which in some cases demand vaccination, are held by women.

But in the younger numbers, including the teens and pre-teens, there are still large gaps in who’s getting vaccinated.

For DHEC, Dr. Kelly says, the challenge is how to get through to men who might be resistant to the agency’s (or the CDC’s) message that vaccination is safe and effective at stemming serious illness.

The struggle is real. Surveys like those by the Kaiser Family Foundation at the outset of the pandemic last spring, which shows a big gap in how much more concerned women are about the virus than men, have echoes in surveys like the one WebMD conducted about masks and concerns over getting sick from SARS CoV-2 a year later.

Put simply, Dr. Kelly says, men are just "less worried" about getting COVID.

To combat this attitude, she says, DHEC is trying to tap into men’s protective instincts – to remind them that getting a vaccine is not all about you, it’s about protecting your children, your wives, your parents and grandparents and in-laws.

There’s also the challenge of who should be telling men all this. It’s something long-suspected and occasionally looked at by researchers (and acknowledged by Dr. Kelly herself) that men just tend to tune out women’s voices.

“There are more women in public health nowadays,” she says. “And the messages are heard differently. Some people relate better when the messenger looks like them.”

A ray of hope for DHEC is that the agency had a good bit of success earlier this year converting vaccine hesitancy among African-Americans by leveraging familiar, trusted voices at the community level.

To repeat that kind of success, Dr. Kelly says DHEC is working to diversify who delivers some pretty inarguable messages to men: that the vaccines against COVID, all of them, are holding the line against the virus and keeping people out of both the hospital and morgue.

While there are breakthrough cases, some involving hospitalizations and deaths, Dr. Kelly says there are nuances that need to be understood – mainly that almost every serious case of COVID has hit someone who is not vaccinated, and out of those who were vaccinated, almost every serious case has had pre-existing serious health issues.

That last sentiment was summed up by Dr. Andrew Goodwin, a physician at the Medical University of South Carolina, in a recent presentation. He said: “The vast majority are immunocompromised. An example would be a patient who was an organ transplant recipient who has taken immunosuppressants to prevent rejection.”

As of Sept. 15, South Carolina has recorded close to 11,500 COVID-related deaths and nearly 27,500 COVID-related hospitalizations.

Find a vaccine in South Carolina by clicking HERE.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.