Analysis

Study Arguing Red States Did A Worse Job Containing COVID-19 Than Blue States Is Missing Key Context

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Healthcare Reporter
Font Size:

Key context is missing from a study published Tuesday which argues that Republican governors performed worse than Democratic governors in managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Future policy decisions should be guided by public health considerations rather than political ideology,” the researchers from Johns Hopkins and the Medical University of South Carolina wrote. The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, only examines data from Mar. 15 through Dec. 15, 2020, leaving out the substantial “winter surge” in cases and deaths experienced in the U.S. in January and February.

The study concludes that Republican-led states had lower COVID-19 incidence rates from March until early June, but that the trend reversed after that point. As the authors point out, the U.S. experienced more than 16 million COVID-19 cases and 300,000 deaths as of Dec. 15. Currently, America is sitting at over 29 million cases and nearly 530,000 deaths according to the CDC, meaning the study is missing data from about 40% of the country’s total deaths and cases.

The researchers hypothesized that partisanship was a driving factor in which lockdown measures governors chose to implement, and as a result there would be a difference in cases and deaths between red and blue states. “Recent studies found that Republican governors, however, were slower to adopt stay-at-home orders, if they did so at all,” the authors wrote.

“Thus, governors’ political affiliation might function as an upstream progenitor of multifaceted policies that, in unison, impact the spread of the virus,” they continued.

As things currently stand in mid-March, 2021, the states with the three highest COVID-19 deaths per capita are New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island, according to data from Becker’s Hospital Review. All have Democratic governors. (RELATED: America Has Millions Of Vaccine Doses It Can’t Use)

The average per capita death rate from COVID-19 in the 23 states run by Democrats, plus Washington, D.C., is 149.1. In the 27 Republican-led states, it was 149.9, virtually the same.

Among the states with the bottom 10 COVID-19 death rates, five have Republican governors and five have Democratic governors. Of the top 10 highest death rates, five are led by Republicans and five are led by Democrats.

Based on current death rates, there is not a statistically meaningful difference between the performance of Republican-led states and Democrat-led states.

The study also did not adjust based on actual policy differences. The researchers accounted for various demographic differences in states, but lumped states into groups based purely on partisan gubernatorial affiliation. (RELATED: Countries Around The World Halt AstraZeneca Vaccine Over Blood Clot Worries)

This fails to account for the nuance between states like Maryland and Florida, or New York and Kansas. Maryland and Florida are both led by Republican governors, however they have taken drastically different approaches to COVID-19 restrictions. Florida has been largely open since Sep. 2020, while Maryland just lifted many business restrictions this week and still has a mask mandate in place.

Kansas and New York are both led by Democratic governors, but the latter been far more restricted. Kansas has a mask mandate in place, but counties can opt out, and a majority have done so since last summer. In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo just relaxed some business restrictions recently, but the state still has a mask mandate.

There also isn’t a clear causation between states that have implemented stricter coronavirus restrictions and lower death rates. Oklahoma has been open since last summer, and it has a death rate less than half of New York and New Jersey. Florida has a death rate almost exactly equal to Washington, D.C.

The study only accounted for population factors like age, race, income, density, and comorbidities, not actual policies.