The 2 key facts about US Covid policy that everyone should know
This shouldn't feel like a contrarian position.
I’m not sure how much to write about COVID here at Silver Bulletin. On the one hand, the way the topic represents the intersection of the personal and the political seems almost designed to alienate people. On the other hand, I don’t really buy the idea that we should just move on from reflecting on the issue. Other than maybe the fall of the Soviet Union, COVID has been the most consequential event of my lifetime. And there are going to be future pandemics; we probably ought to at least try not to screw up in quite the same ways again. So while I won’t write about COVID frequently, it will make an occasional guest appearance.
The goal of this post is to convey two related facts that make for politically inconvenient bedfellows. They aren’t breaking news by any means. (I was originally waiting to time this post until the new COVID booster shots became available. Except it turns out, they already are available — I just hadn’t realized it.1) But I still think they’re worth repeating. The facts are these:
Until vaccines became available, there was little difference in COVID death rates between blue states and red states.
After vaccines became available, there were clear differences, with red states having higher death rates, almost certainly as a result of lower vaccine uptake among Republicans.
In other words, the vaccines made a real and obvious dent in COVID, whereas the effect of other NPIs — such as school and business closures, masks, and social distancing — is much less clear.
You can observe this by looking at state-level data.2 The table below compares the number of COVID deaths per capita up through Feb. 1, 2021 with the number of deaths since then; this date represents roughly when vaccines became readily available to the most vulnerable groups:3
Up through February 2021, there was little discernible pattern in whether red states or blue states4 were worse affected by COVID. Since then — post-vaccines — the top of the list is dominated by red states. It’s a big difference; since Feb. 2021, the average death rate in red states is 35 percent higher than in blue states. The state with the highest COVID death rate during that period is West Virginia, which gave Donald Trump his second-largest margin of victory. The jurisdiction with the lowest COVID death rate since Feb. 2021 is Washington, D.C., which gave Joe Biden his largest winning margin. There are some exceptions to the pattern — Utah did quite well, for instance — but not many.
Maybe you think this is the result of some sort of ecological fallacy, but a recent analysis of individual-level data suggests that it isn’t. A team from Yale published a study tracking excess deaths among registered voters in Florida and Ohio. The methodology of the study is simple and robust:
To assess the association between political party affiliation and excess mortality for individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic, we linked voter registration data in Florida and Ohio to mortality data at the individual level to calculate excess death rates for Republican and Democratic voters and compare excess death rates before and after vaccines became available to the full adult population.
The authors simply cross-checked voter registration records against death records to look up whether people registered as Republicans were dying more often than people registered as Democrats. There’s no fancy math here; they’re basically just counting. And what they found is that there were no real differences until vaccines became available. Once vaccines were available, Republicans began having considerably higher excess death rates:
Again, the timing lines up almost perfectly, with Republican excess deaths starting to surpass Democratic ones right when the most vulnerable groups began getting vaccinated. There’s no other reason I can think of why Republicans would suddenly start dying at higher rates.
To repeat myself, though, the absence of any major differences before the availability of vaccines is also newsworthy. Look, I’m sure that if you squinted, or adjusted for umpteen other factors, you could find some differences in COVID mortality rates as a result of closures, social distancing, masks and other NPIs. I am not claiming this data to be the last word or saying I’m against every single COVID intervention other than vaccines. But those other interventions came with costs — enormous costs and disutilities. The contrast in how clearly the effect of vaccines shows up in the data to how unclear the effect of the other measures are probably ought to inform our response next time.
I sometimes feel like I’m on an island to think highly of the COVID vaccines at all — while also thinking that the liberal establishment otherwise made a lot of mistakes when it came to COVID. But I think this data is fairly persuasive, and so I thought it was worth sharing.
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There are plenty of appointments at pharmacies near me in New York. The booster rollouts haven’t been well-publicized — and they haven’t been very popular. Relatively few Americans — 34 percent of the country — got the initial booster doses that first became available in fall 2021. Even fewer, about 17 percent, got the bivalent booster shots last year. This is not meant as a criticism of people who got the shots, though. I’m actually part of that 17 percent, despite not taking a lot of other COVID precautions at this point.
The first vaccines were given out in December, 2020 and then the vaccination rate ramped up very rapidly through April 2021, at which point all adults became eligible for them. So a date of Feb. 1 is somewhere in the middle. It wouldn’t make much difference in this analysis if you shifted the cutoff forward or back by a month or two.
Red states = voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020. Blue states = voted for Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020. Purple states = voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020.