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Holiday travel bursts openly divided political and vaccination bubbles

We increasingly live near people who share our views, but the fates of red and blue America are more tightly intertwined than either side wants to admit.

WASHINGTON — It's the holiday season, the time to gather with family and old friends, even people with whom you don't see eye to eye politically. This year, that may have special meaning.

Geographic self-segregation — the difference between where Democrats and Republicans tend to live — has come to define U.S. politics. But when it is combined with the coronavirus pandemic, the geographic divides have real-world public health impacts.

After 20 months of Covid protocols, many families and friends are traveling and getting together for the first time in a long time, and they are bringing different attitudes about the virus and the vaccines. Add it up, and it could mean the country is due for another post-holiday season surge.

The change in travel plans around Thanksgiving this year tells the story. More than 53 million people planned to take to the road and the skies in the last week, according to AAA.

That's more than 6 million people more compared to last year, before there were vaccines and before Americans had gotten exhausted by the pandemic.

The figures show that there is still some hesitance around travel. In 2019, the same AAA survey found that 56 million Americans were going to travel for Thanksgiving. But this year's number is still 13 percent higher that last year's. It shows that more people are breaking out of their community bubbles to see people from other places.

And that's where the political and health differences come into play.

Every holiday season, scores of articles are written about how to talk about politics with those you disagree with, but this year those differences may well include different vaccination statuses for Uncle Bob or Aunt Dora.

The Kaiser Family Foundation reported that 27 percent of U.S. adults hadn't gotten a single vaccine dose as of late October. The partisan divide in that 27 percent was remarkable — 17 percent of them were Democrats, 17 percent of them were independents, and a whopping 60 percent were Republicans.

So, in some cases, the awkwardness of holiday conversations has risen to a whole new level. Before you start talking about Congress or the White House, you might want to ask whether your table mates have their vaccination cards handy.

And it's not just about sitting around the table together or sharing the punch bowl that poses a Covid challenge. The point of travel is to pull you out of your environment into some place different, and even if everyone at your destination is vaccinated, there's still getting from point A to point B, which can be fraught.

For example, consider Mecklenburg and Stanly counties in North Carolina.

They are less than a half-hour apart by car, but their political and Covid differences are stark. President Joe Biden won Mecklenburg by 35 percentage points, and 59 percent of the total population has had two vaccination shots. Former President Donald Trump won Stanly by 51 points, and fewer than 40 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

In Denver, which Biden won by 62 percentage points, 72 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. In nearby Elbert County, which Trump won by 50 points, only 36 percent have gotten both doses.

There are similar patterns from Tennessee to Kansas to California — “blue" counties with high vaccination rates near "red" counties with the opposite.

The unfortunate reality is that the pandemic has become politicized, and this year the holiday season seems to be primed to show the impacts of the politicization as we emerge from our political bubbles and interact.

The American Communities Project recently found that urban areas that are more likely to vote Democratic are also more likely to have higher percentages of people who are fully vaccinated. But even the bluest highly vaccinated cities are connected by highways that run through very red low-vaccinated areas.

In short, even if you are vaccinated and visiting people who are vaccinated, the airports and the rest stops and the restaurants along the way are likely to be filled with cross-sections of people holding different beliefs about politics and the virus that has disrupted life.

It's all a reminder that no political bubble is airtight. We may increasingly live near and socialize with people who share our views, but the fates of red and blue America are more tightly intertwined than either side probably wants to admit.

CORRECTION (Nov. 28, 2021, 10:15 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the name of a county in North Carolina. It is Mecklenburg County, not Mecklenberg.