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What happens when red states pass blue states in COVID-19 cases? We're about to find out

Topeka, Kansas / USA - April 23, 2020. Open up Kansas protest/ rally. Hundreds of Kansans showed up at the Kansas state Capital in Topeka Kansas to protest the covid-19 shutdown. Shutterstock/ John Edward Callahan

Several weeks ago I posted an identically-titled diary:


The COVID-19 pandemic shouldn’t be a partisan thing.

Tragically, in the Age of Trump, everything has become ultra-partisan...even a public health emergency. Even wearing a fucking mask to prevent infection has become a Partisan Statement®.

Since policy is being dictated by partisan politics, it does no good to try and pooh-pooh anyone who looks at the spread of the virus on a partisan basis. We have to do so because Trump has forced the issue.

Last week, Vanity Fair confirmed that, sure enough…

...Most troubling of all, perhaps, was a sentiment the expert said a member of Kushner’s team expressed: that because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically. “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy,” said the expert.

...On April 27, Trump stepped to a podium in the Rose Garden, flanked by members of his coronavirus task force and leaders of America’s big commercial testing laboratories, Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp, and finally announced a testing plan: It bore almost no resemblance to the one that had been forged in late March, and shifted the problem of diagnostic testing almost entirely to individual states.

As sickening and disturbing as this may be, you can't avoid an ugly reality by pretending it doesn't. The bottom line is that the Trump Administration sees everything through a partisan political lens. EVERYTHING. As long as they think more Democrats will suffer and die from COVID-19 than Republicans, they'll either avoid doing anything to fight the virus or will do the bare minimum to make it look like they're doing so.

Actually, it's even more Orwellian than that: As long as they can make Trump supporters think more Democrats are suffering and dying than Republicans, they'll keep on their present course.

Back to my own diary from mid-July:

With that in mind, the graph above shows the official number of positive COVID-19 cases per 1,000 residents according to Johns Hopkins University’s Center for System Science & Engineering Dept. I’ve been tracking their data very closely every day for months now.

With this in mind, I've been tracking the spread of the virus across every state on a daily per capita basis, both in cases per 1,000 residents and deaths per 10,000 (I use the different scales to make it easier to see the trendlines of each on the same graph).

The graph above shows where things stood as of yesterday, with all 50 states + DC grouped into Blue States, Red States and Swing States. The definition of "Swing State" is a bit arbitrary; I've picked the nine which have been traditionally considered to fall into that category, along with Arizona and Georgia.

At the time, COVID-19 case rates were still higher in the blue states than the red states.

Around a week or so ago the Red states bypassed both the Swing and Blue states in cases per capita and are now running around 7% ahead in official COVID-19 cases per capita, with no sign of slowing down. In terms of mortality, the Blue states are still well ahead of both the Swing and Red states; there have been roughly 2.2x as many official deaths per capita in the Blue states than in the Red states. However, this trend line is also looking bad for the Red states as well, if at a slower pace:

  • In early April, the death rate was nearly 7x higher in the Blue states.
  • By early May that was down to 4.5x higher.
  • In early June it was 3.8x higher.
  • In early July it was 3.4x higher.
  • This week it's down to 2.2x higher.

Some folks have suggested that the shift might be due to the Red states massively ramping up their testing rates...after all, if the Red states suddenly start testing at twice the rate as the Blue states, it would be reasonable to see their positive COVID-19 case levels increase faster.

This is a fair question, so I decided to check.

I plugged in the daily cumulative test results for all 50 states + DC from the COVID Tracking Project, grouped those into the same Red/Blue/Swing state categories shown above, and plotted the ratio between the Blue and Red states just as I do for Cases and Deaths.

covid_red_blue_states_ratios.jpg

Lo and behold, it turns out the opposite is true: The Blue states not only started out testing at a higher rate (which made sense back in March/April), but they're still testing at around a 33% higher rate than the Red states even today. The gap is starting to shrink, but very, very slowly.

It's important to note that this isn't a perfect comparison for several reasons; most notably, some states report the total number of tests performed (which means 2 tests performed on the same person will count twice) while others report on the total number of people tested (which is how it should be done). It's possible that more blue states report the number of tests while more red states report the number of people tested; if so, that would skew the results.

It's also possible that some states are testing different demographic groups at a higher rate than others: If the red states are testing a much higher percentage of elderly nursing home residents than the blue states are, for instance, that would likely skew the ratio their way, and so on.

Assuming these are nominal factors, however, the trend is clear: COVID-19 is quickly becoming more of a Red State problem than a Blue State problem even though Blue States are testing residents at a higher rate.

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