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Blue States and Counties Are Doing Better Than Red Ones During the Pandemic

The American Journal of Preventive Medicine earlier last week published a new statistical study that basically found that states led by Democratic governors have fared better through the worst of the pandemic than those governed by Republicans.

Opined the authors: “Gubernatorial party affiliation may drive policy decisions that impact COVID-19 infections and deaths across the U.S. Future policy decisions should be guided by public health considerations rather than political ideology.”

Gee, you think? Actually, I’m glad to see this kind of big academic study. As eye-glazing as it can be in places, it reinforces a lot of the observations I’ve made here at Trouble in God’s Country since COVID-19 rolled in a year ago. Early on, I started noticing differences between Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp was famously loath to impose restrictions because of the pandemic, and North Carolina, where Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper acted pretty quickly and decisively to begin closing down his state.

The two states have a lot in common, including demographics, economics, educational levels and population size. Pretty much from the get-go, North Carolina was performing more COVID-19 tests and reporting more confirmed cases but fewer deaths.

Based on the latest data available from the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker, North Carolina has since significantly outperformed Georgia. As of Thursday, Mar. 11, Georgia, with a population of 10.6 million, had more than a million confirmed and probable cases and 18,117 COVID-19 deaths; North Carolina, whose population is only slightly smaller at 10.4 million, has recorded 879,825 such cases and 11,622 deaths.

A week or so after that first Georgia-North Carolina comparison last March, I posted a new piece that broadened the focus and compared a half-dozen Deep South states led by proudly conservative Republicans (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee) to three deep blue West Coast states led by liberal Democratic governors (California, Oregon and Washington).

The two regions had very comparable populations—51.4 million for the three West Coast states versus 51.9 million for the six Deep South states. But the regions’ governors were taking very different approaches in fighting the virus. The governors on the West Coast, which bore the brunt of the virus’s initial attack, took early, dramatic actions to shut down their states and limit the spread of the virus, while the Old South’s GOP governors were openly resisting most public health-driven actions.

At the time of that initial report—not even a month into the pandemic—the West Coast had suffered 543 deaths versus 500 for the South, but the South was already piling up more cases: more than 24,000 versus just over 18,500 for the West Coast.

I pulled fresh numbers from the CDC’s COVID-19 Data Tracking website on Mar. 12, and the South’s performance now looks much worse in comparison to the West Coast (where, again, the virus initially turned Seattle into the public health equivalent of Chernobyl and has continued to savage the California coast) than it did last April. The Southern states have racked up 25,000 more deaths than the West Coast and a million more confirmed and probable cases.

The AJPM study found that the Republican-led states had lower case and death rates for the first several months of the pandemic, but that those trend lines crossed on June 3, 2020, for case rates and a month later, on July 4, for death rates.

That’s generally in line with another TIGC observation. I tracked county-level case and death rates on an almost daily basis for the first several months of the pandemic by the political party each county sided with in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election. Early on, the virus did most of its damage in urban areas that were heavily populated and largely Democratic, such as metro Atlanta; the virus was indeed slow to show up in sparsely-populated rural areas of Georgia that largely sided with Kemp and other Republicans.

But it did get there—and, just as the authors of the AJPM study found, the trend lines eventually crossed. By my calculations, the death rate in counties that went for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams had been higher—that is, worse — from the opening days of the pandemic through most of August; they crossed on Aug. 25, 2020. The case rate trend lines were a little slower to intersect, but finally crossed on Sept. 9. I took another look at this phenomenon following last year’s presidential election and found the same pattern. By election day, President Donald J. Trump’s Georgia counties had significantly worse case rates, death rates and 14-day case rates than his then-Democratic challenger, Joe Biden’s Georgia counties.

The Trump counties totaled 3,333 confirmed case rates, a death rate of 80.6 and an average of 216.7 cases over a 14-day period, compared to the Biden counties’ 3,100.5 confirmed cases, 65.2 deaths and 170.3 cases per two weeks.

The authors of the AJPM study were careful to avoid asserting causality in the statistical relationship between the governors’ party affiliations and their states’ COVID-19 results. And, indeed, there are a variety of factors other than politics that probably contribute to different outcomes. In an early piece speculating that rural Georgia might eventually be harder hit than the state’s urban areas, I cited the facts that rural Georgians were generally in poorer health than their city cousins and had access to much frailer health care delivery systems. At that point, the political differences were just beginning to come into focus.

But, statistical limitations aside, it now seems silly to ignore the obvious political relationships and implications. It’s often said that the 50 states function as laboratories for American democracy. For a year now, that’s clearly been the case where America’s response to COVID-19 is concerned. But it’s a shame we all wound up being used as human guinea pigs.

Longtime friend and long-ago colleague Terry L. Wells contributed to this article. He first spotted and posted to Facebook an article about the AJPM study, without which I probably would have missed the whole thing.