Skepticism

The Terrible “Study” that Says Liberal States Failed at COVID

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Way back in early 2020 as the pandemic was just beginning, I made a video in which I said that we may not know the full extent of the damage of COVID, and the true efficacy of measures various countries took to stop the spread, for years. In the middle of everything it can be hard to get objective data like excess deaths while controlling for population density, age, income, education, and other important demographic information. Well, it’s been years! We’re still in the middle of the pandemic but we can definitely look back and see pretty clearly how various states’ measures worked or didn’t work. And that’s why I’m sure we can trust this headline from The Daily Mail, reading Proof that blue states DID fail their people during pandemic: Harsh lockdowns caused huge deaths rates, ruined kids’ education and destroyed business, bombshell research FINALLY shows – with NY, NJ, CA and IL all receiving an F-grade!

Okay, yeah, you know it’s bullshit so as usual I will start with the facts: no state in the US employed any kind of “lockdown.” If we had, there’s a chance that we could have saved more lives, although it’s a lot like state-by-state gun control laws, where you can really only do so much within your own borders when people can freely travel back and forth from the next state over. The “no pissing” section of the public pool problem.

But yes, in general, states run by Democrats took more decisive action than those run by Republicans, like instituting mask mandates, shutting down businesses where people congregate indoors for long periods of time, making schools and offices remote-only, and then highly encouraging uptake of vaccines and boosters. And the result, we can now say with a high degree of certainty, is that those actions saved lives. 

By the end of 2021, data from Johns Hopkins showed that states that voted for Trump had a 52% higher average of COVID-19 deaths per capita than liberal states. CNN reported that “The 12 states with the highest case rate for every 100,000 people are all run by Republican governors. The 13 states with the highest hospitalization rate per 100,000 residents are all run by Republican governors. The 15 states with the highest percentage of deaths per 100,000 are all run by Republican governors.”

Even without accounting for population density, CDC data shows clearly that mandates curbed the initial outbreak and kept liberal states safe during the Delta outbreak compared to conservativev states. According to an analysis from Axios done just last month, conservative states are still currently well above liberal states in deaths per 100,000 people even though omicron is better at dodging vaccines AND liberal states like California have dropped pretty much all mask and vaccine mandates and resumed in-person schooling.

Pew Research analysts published similar findings last month: “As the relationship between population density and coronavirus death rates has changed over the course of the pandemic, so too has the relationship between counties’ voting patterns and their death rates from COVID-19…During the fourth wave of the pandemic, death rates in the most pro-Trump counties were about four times what they were in the most pro-Biden counties. When the highly transmissible omicron variant began to spread in the U.S. in late 2021, these differences narrowed substantially. However, death rates in the most pro-Trump counties were still about 180% of what they were in the most pro-Biden counties throughout late 2021 and early 2022.” 

Their report suggests that the biggest reason for conservative states suffering so much more is vaccine uptake.

So considering all that, what “study” inspired the Daily Mail to declare such an utter victory for conservative states, claiming “Democrat Governors’ policies ’caused huge death rates, ruined children’s studies and destroyed businesses’ and “states that allowed residents more freedom as coronavirus swept across the country faired better”? Great question! 

They refer to it as “the most wide-ranging study into Covid restrictions in the US to date” but don’t bother to link to the study. They do link to a Fox News article about the same study, which declares “California, New York handled COVID-19 lockdowns the worst, Florida among the best, a new study shows.” Fox News also doesn’t link to the study. 

Luckily I don’t give up that easily, and I’m happy to report that I found the document in question available in full online: A Final Report Card on the States’ Response to COVID-19, published by the “Committee to Unleash Prosperity.” So, not a peer-reviewed study published in any journal. Just a ranking posted online by a conservative think tank that gets a “failing grade” on Charity Navigator for finance and accountability. Ironic!

So, how did CUP manage to come to the exact opposite conclusion of every other analysis of the raw data? By “adjusting,” of course!

States differ by a number of factors that you may want to control for – the analyses I talked about before were purely about how many people died out of 100,000, which only controls for the total population of each state. But researchers know that there are certain things that might make people more likely to contract and/or die from COVID: one early study found the most significant factors were “Population density, testing numbers and airport traffic emerge as the most discriminatory factors, followed by higher age groups (above 40 and specifically 60+).” Since then, of course, we’ve learned that higher BMI (obesity) is a factor, as well as other comorbidities. And of course you can imagine that people with lower incomes, less education, and less access to medical care might experience worse outcomes. So, for instance, Massachusetts may have greater population density and airport traffic while Florida may have higher age and BMI. So if you really want to drill down on which politicians did the best job for their constituents, you’d want to control for those things.

This study DID control for…two of those things: age and obesity. You know, the two factors that will mostly apply to conservative states. And none of the factors that mostly apply to liberal states. Unsurprisingly, the authors admit that “NV, NY, NJ, and DC were the four states with the highest metabolic-adjusted mortality, even though none is in the top four without the adjustment.”

So yes, it turns out if you ignore the biggest known factor in the spread of a disease and only control for the two factors that make conservative states look better, conservative states will look better. Genius!

This “study” also looked at two other factors: how each state did in terms of their economy and education. For the economy, I need to declare a conflict of interest: I don’t really give a shit. I don’t really care about the economy – I care about human lives, and if Amazon stock needs to fall 40% to save one human life I think it’s worth it. And I say that as someone who now owns investments! Take my money. Please. Obviously things aren’t that cut and dry, since “the economy” does occasionally impact individuals who aren’t millionaires, like with current inflation rates, but for the most part the markers economists use to determine how great things are aren’t always the markers that tell us how happy and healthy the average American is. 

So with that warning out of the way, the authors looked at state unemployment rates and GDP, and adjusted for the “Mining, Oil and Gas, Accommodations and Food, and Arts and Entertainment” industries because they say these were the hardest hit industries. After running their statistical analyses they determined that conservative-led states had the best economy and liberal-led states had the worst. Which is weird, that they say they controlled for industry but their results are pretty much exactly what previous economists have found when NOT controlling for industry

“States like New York, California, Hawaii and Nevada that rely heavily on tourism, as well as food and accommodations, are some of the deepest in the economic hole and have the longest way to go, according to the Federal Reserve’s April State Coincident Index, which estimates economic conditions based on local employment and wage data matched to states’ GDP trends.

“But states including Utah, Idaho, South Dakota and Nebraska that rely largely on food processing and manufacturing — industries deemed essential and required to stay open during the pandemic — are getting back to normal much more quickly.”

But sure, okay! Republicans win on that line going up.

The third thing they looked at was education, and guys, please take a moment to hold onto your butts because this is very, very funny: they ranked each state on education and found that Wyoming and a bunch of Republican states are at the top and Washington, DC and a bunch of Democrat states are dead last. So what metric did they use to determine this? Was it test scores? College entrance numbers? No, my dear friends, it was “cumulative in-person education percentage.” They found that the states that forced students to go to school in-person had the most students going to school in person. Groundbreaking!

And at the end they gave each state a score based on all three of those measures, so like a third of your final grade was based on how soon you forced kids into classrooms. Absolutely incredible.

So that’s the straight dope, for when you see this inevitably hit your peepaw’s Facebook page. I suggest countering with my study on which states are the best, based on how much I enjoyed visiting them once. Top of the list, California! Bottom of the list: Florida. Sorry Florida, but you’re muggy and full of diseases.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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5 Comments

  1. Nice analysis.
    One of my ineradicable memories of 2020 is Donald Trump, when confronted by per-capita death numbers that showed the United States doing badly compared to other countries, bellowing, “you can’t do that. You can’t do that.”
    Can’t do per-capita rates. Nope.
    Statistical analysis–not his strong suit.

  2. My reaction: consider the source.
    I gather that in the UK, they call the Daily Mail “the Daily Fail,” and from what I’ve heard, the Canadian version is no better. It’s not quite to the point I was with Trump, of whom I said, “if he says the sun rises in the East, I’d get up early next morning to check.” But it’s close.

    (This is not a criticism of your video, which is, as usual, well-researched and reasonable.)

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