[Note: I’ve edited this piece slightly to acknowledge two other factors — current population health and religiosity — that no doubt contribute to how the two regions are faring in the face of the pandemic.]
It’s probably a little early for this kind of analysis, but our nation’s every-state-for-itself approach to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is already generating some interesting contrasts between different states and even regions of the country.
I’ve been following the differences between Georgia and North Carolina, neighboring southeastern states with nearly identical populations but very different COVID-19 results. North Carolina continues to have substantially fewer confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths — despite performing a great many more tests than Georgia. The principal difference between the two states appears to be political: North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, acted earlier and more decisively to begin closing down his state than his Republican counterpart, Brian Kemp, here in Georgia.
Today I decided to expand that analysis and look at two regions of the country: the West Coast (made up of California, Oregon and Washington) and the Old South (comprised in this analysis of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee). As it happens, these two regions also have very comparable populations: 52.0 million in the Old South versus 51.4 million on the West Coast.
This comparison also gives us the same political split. The West Coast is famously deep blue; all three states have liberal Democratic governors. The Old South is bright red and governed by proudly right-wing politicians.
So how are they doing? Let’s look first at the regional numbers.
The state-by-state numbers look like this:
The West Coast, which suffered the country’s first COVID-19 blows as the virus moved in from China, has actually (as of the numbers available this morning on state websites today) recorded 43 more deaths than the Old South — but significantly fewer confirmed cases. The Old South may have recorded 8.6 percent fewer deaths than the West Coast, but it’s posted 22.6 percent more infections.
Perhaps more telling are the COVID-19 infection and mortality rates, which I’ve calculated using a standard formula: [(Confirmed Cases or Deaths/Population)*100,000].
This is, of course, a complex situation, with a great many variables at work. The Old South starts at a disadvantage to its West Coast counterparts because it is both less healthy and more religious. The higher percentages of comorbidities such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease constitute the kinds of “underlying medical conditions” that make people more vulnerable to COVID-19, and places of worship are among the mass gatherings that are now recognized as natural breeding grounds for the bug. (I’ll try to flesh out these points in a later post, but you can find good rankings on health and religiosity here and here.)
That said, it seems increasingly difficult to argue that politics and public policy choices aren’t playing a significant role in how different parts of the country fare in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The West Coast governors acted well ahead of their Old South counterparts to begin shutting down their states. Indeed, probably the first major American politician to take such action was San Francisco Mayor London Breed; she imposed a shelter-in-place order on March 13 and was joined by other Northern California officials three days later. California Governor Gavin Newsom followed suit on March 19. Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who was confronted with the nation’s first major outbreak in Seattle, banned major gatherings in heavily-populated counties on March 11, and then imposed a full shelter-in-place order on March 23. Governor Kate Brown of Oregon came on board the next day.
Meanwhile, the Old South governors lagged well behind their West Coast counterparts and to a great extent deferred to local officials (only, once they did act, to upend many of the local actions). Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves initially said he had no plans to issue a statewide order but did take to Facebook Live to conduct a prayer session on March 22. Today, his state has among the nation’s highest COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and mortality rates.
Ditto Alabama. There, as the West Coast governors were shutting down their states, Governor Kaye Ivey announced on March 24 she had no plans to issue a statewide order. “We’re not California, we’re not New York, we aren’t even Louisiana,” she said.
Today, her state’s COVID-19 infection and mortality rates are worse than California’s. Both she and Reeves threw in the towel late last week and issued statewide shelter-in-place orders. As did the governors of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. At this point, South Carolina is the only Old South hold-out.
Notably, the reluctant and belated actions by the southern governors have sowed widespread confusion. Here in Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp justified his turnaround decision to issue a shelter-in-place order with the dubious claim that he had only learned the day before that asymptomatic COVID-19 victims could spread the virus — even though public health officials had been saying as much since February.
That explanation earned him national media scorn (“Georgia Gov. Shows Just How Far Behind The World He Is On Coronavirus,” blared a HuffPost headline), but his shelter-in-place order may have done him at least as much local political damage. One presumably unintended consequence of his order was that — by superseding local ordinances — it reopened Georgia’s Atlantic beaches, including Tybee Island, Jekyll Island and St. Simons.
According to a story in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Republican member of the Glynn County Commission, Peter Murphy, reacted thusly: “We had carefully considered ways to keep people safe here and the governor’s order has undermined everything we were doing.” Murphy, a retired physician, had led the push to close down the local beaches.
Up the road at Tybee Island, an obviously peeved Mayor Shirley Sessions issued a statement that opened on a decidedly undiplomatic note: “As the Pentagon ordered 100,000 body bags to store the corpses of Americans killed by the Coronavirus, Governor Brian Kemp dictated that Georgia beaches must reopen, and declared any decision-makers who refused to follow these orders would face prison and/or fines.”
Mayor Sessions went on to say bluntly that she and the Tybee Island City Council “do not support” Kemp’s decision and to make clear that — while the beaches themselves might be open — the town-controlled access points and parking lots would remain closed. “At no time,” she said, “has the state designated a single point of contact to orchestrate the implementation of the Governor’s plan.”
In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis fared little better when he finally issued a stay-at-home order on Wednesday. Hours after signing that first order, The Tampa Bay Times reported that he “quietly signed another one that appeared to override restrictions put in place by local governments to halt the spread of coronavirus. However, DeSantis on Thursday said the amendment he signed does the reverse, instigating another round of confusion over the intent of his directives.”
Is all this definitive? Probably not. Again, it’s arguably a little early for this kind of analysis. But the data that’s already in is a little hard to ignore.
Watch this space.