Study: Governor's party affiliation may have influenced how bad their state's COVID crisis was

There’s a lot riding on the word “may” in that headline, eh?

This provocative little finding is above my pay grade to fact check, but it involves researchers from Johns Hopkins and it was peer-reviewed. A public-health expert at a New York University who read it told NBC that it was “a very enlightening and well-done study.” It’s not hackwork by randos, as far as I can tell.

But it’s also not definitive. The best the authors can do is say there’s a correlation between a governor’s party ID and how many cases were circulating in their state between June and December of last year, not that there’s causation.

Still, prepare to play a smashmouth game of political football with the results in the days ahead.

In this longitudinal analysis, Republican-led states had fewer per capita COVID-19 cases, deaths, and positive tests early in the pandemic, but these trends reversed in early May (positive tests), June (cases), and July (deaths). Testing rates were similar until September, when Republican states fell behind Democratic states. The early trends could be explained by high COVID-19 cases and deaths among Democratic-led states that are home to initial ports of entry for the virus in early 2020. However, the subsequent reversal in trends, particularly with respect to testing, may reflect policy differences that could have facilitated the spread of the virus.

Adolph et al. found that Republican governors were slower to adopt both stay-at-home orders and mandates to wear face masks. Other studies have shown that Democratic governors were more likely to issue stay-at-home orders with longer durations. Moreover, decisions by Republican governors in spring 2020 to retract policies, such as the lifting of stay-at-home orders on April 28 in Georgia, may have contributed to increased cases and deaths. Democratic states also had lower test positivity rates from May 30 through December 15, suggesting more rigorous containment strategies in response to the pandemic. Thus, governors’ political affiliation might function as an upstream progenitor of multifaceted policies that, in unison, impact the spread of the virus. Although there were exceptions in states such as Maryland and Massachusetts, Republican governors were generally less likely to enact policies aligned with public health social distancing recommendations.

They’re speculating that blue states got it worse up front because they’re coastal. People traveling to China, Italy, and other hot spots were more likely to re-enter the U.S. in those coastal states, seeding outbreaks. Blue states also tend to have higher incomes per capita than red ones do; wealthier people are doubtless more likely to travel abroad, so blue states also may have had more residents bringing back the virus in early 2020. Once May and June rolled around, though, the partisan trends began to shift — possibly because red-state governors moved quickly to relax social-distancing restrictions and eschewed mask mandates for awhile. Here’s how cases per capita across different states looked like last year, per the study:

And here’s how positivity rates shook out:

If you look at cases per capita among U.S. states on the Worldometer “scoreboard,” you do find a disproportionately high number of red states clustered at the top. Of the 20 states with the highest numbers, 17 went red on Election Day last year. Of the top 25, just five were blue states.

It gets more complicated with death rates. The study also finds a shift towards higher deaths per capita among red states beginning last July, but the gruesome bloodbath in blue states like New York and New Jersey during the earliest days of the pandemic has left Democratic-run states at the top of the list at Worldometer to this day. New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts lead the way with Connecticut seventh out of 50. Maybe that’s because northeastern and mid-Atlantic states are a bit more urban and their higher density meant that COVID spread more quickly, at a moment when there was practically zero immunity among the population, hospitals were crushed, and doctors didn’t know how to treat the disease.

Or maybe it’s because at least one of those states was horribly mismanaged in the earliest stages, seeding an outbreak that ended up being more ferocious than it needed to be. That’s one obvious criticism of the study: By looking squarely at partisan affiliation, it necessarily overlooks the differing degrees of competence with which governors handled their outbreaks. Greg Abbott’s Texas and Ron DeSantis’s Florida are 23rd and 29th, respectively, out of 50 states in cases per capita. DeSantis famously declined to make Cuomo’s mistake of returning infected nursing-home patients to their residences, which doubtless helped hold down his state’s death toll too. Competence matters, not just ideology. And that cuts within party lines too, not just across them. California’s a major port of entry for people returning from China but it didn’t experience a nightmare last spring like New York did thanks to state and local leaders shutting down aggressively.

Another obvious point is that county officials exert some control over restrictions in many states, meaning that an analysis that looks only at the governor’s behavior is missing a key piece of the puzzle. DeSantis allowed local officials in major cities like Miami to limit gatherings within certain bounds; Abbott, in lifting restrictions this month on Texas businesses, empowered local officials to reestablish capacity limits depending upon the rate of hospitalizations locally. It’d be interesting to see a more granular county-by-county comparison of how different states fared depending on the party ID of different county officials.

And of course, not everyone cares or abides by what their governor or local leaders have to say. If in fact red states were more prone to COVID after last spring’s initial wave, it may be that the greater resistance to masks and lockdowns among rank-and-file Republicans led them to ignore restrictions that were imposed from the top. Remember that Abbott had Texas under a mask mandate for eight full months before lifting it recently. To the extent Texas contributed to the higher positivity rate among red states over that period, it wasn’t because Abbott was extraordinarily lax in his restrictions. It may be because Texans were more likely to flout the mandate for ideological reasons than blue-state residents were.

One last point. Part of the reason case rates in blue states stayed low over the course of 2020 as they ramped up in red states may be that blue states like New York suffered such horrendous outbreaks last spring that they acquired a degree of herd immunity early that made it harder for the virus to transmit. Red states escaped that fate last spring so their entire populations were still vulnerable as the virus steadily spread over the summer. Don’t forget either that testing was still primitive and infamously slow to ramp up in March and April of last year when blue states were enduring the worst of their epidemics; the true number of cases in places like NY and NJ will never be known. That wouldn’t affect the daily per capita data over the course of the year as tracked by the study (at least not after testing got better last summer), but it *does* heavily influence the Worldometer data on total cases per capita. The states with the early outbreaks should be much higher on that list than they are.