If you look at a graph that maps the geographic distribution of COVID-19 cases in the United States, you will immediately see that the burden of the pandemic differs from state to state. A team of researchers from Hopkins and the Medical University of South Carolina recently investigated these interstate discrepancies and published their findings in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The team includes Hopkins researchers Sara Benjamin-Neelon and Noel T. Mueller, both of whom are professors at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. They explored the relationship between the political affiliation of a state governor and the severity of COVID-19 cases in that state.
âOne thing we learned from 2020 is that citizens are inspired by leaders. So, for example, if the president chooses not to wear a mask, it conveys a message. That said, governors and other heads of state play a crucial role in preventing the spread of the virus within a state, âwrote Benjamin-Neelon in an email to The News-Letter.
During most of the pandemic, the federal government neglected to issue clear guidelines for a nationwide response. State governors, mostly on their own, have implemented various policies to reduce the number of COVID-19 cases in their constituencies. Sara Benjamin-Neelon described how she and her colleagues were intrigued by the different responses to the pandemic and sought to quantify its impacts.
âWe, along with most of the country, have noted a lack of a federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, and in the absence of federal leadership direction, we noticed major differences in how states were dealing with the pandemic and decided to investigate, âshe wrote.
Mueller gave the example of the political decisions made by Brian Kemp, the Republican governor of Georgia. On April 28, Kemp was the first governor to lift stay-at-home orders, a move Mueller said may have contributed to the subsequent increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths in Georgia in May and June.
In general, Republican governors were on average slower to pass both stay-at-home orders and warrants to wear face masks, and Democratic governors were more likely to issue stay-at-home orders with longer durations, âhe wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
The team’s initial informal observations were supported by their longitudinal analysis of COVID-19 incidence, death, testing, and positivity rates from March 15 to December 15, 2020. The team adjusted their model for factors such as the socio-economic makeup of each state and the percentage of the state’s population that voted for each candidate.
They found that from March 2020 to June 2020, Republican-led states had lower COVID-19 incidence rates than Democratic-led states. But that trend reversed in June 2020, when Republican-led states had higher incidence rates. Researchers have also seen this trend when it comes to death rates. After July 4, 2020, Republican-led states had higher death rates than Democratic-led states.
âThe results of our study, which found governorship affiliation to be associated with differences in COVID-19 cases and deaths, are not entirely surprising,â Mueller wrote.
Benjamin-Neelon noted that the policies and actions of governors affect the likelihood that their constituents will adhere to guidelines set by public health professionals. If the governor of a particular state imposes looser restrictions, then those who live in the state can minimize the pandemic.
âIn general, the public seems more willing to adhere to directives issued by heads of state if the underlying rationale is clearly communicated and is molded by leaders,â wrote Benjamin-Neelon.
The two researchers want to see if the trends of 2020 continue into 2021. They also want to explore the influence of governors on vaccine deployment. Benjamin-Neelon and Mueller were involved in another study which concluded that the impact of COVID-19 on a community is affected by the social vulnerability of that community. Social vulnerability is a measure of the sensitivity of a community or individual to the stressors to which they are exposed. The team plans to continue this research and explore other factors that affect the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
âAdditionally, in a separate project, we recently published on how the social vulnerability of the population has affected cases and deaths from COVID-19, and we hope to examine other potentially deterministic factors of cases and future COVID-19 deaths, âMueller wrote.
Both Benjamin-Neelon and Mueller were disappointed with the way the pandemic response was handled last year.
âAs a public health professional, I could not have imagined the political polarization we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic last year,â added Benjamin-Neelon. “The response from many elected officials at the state and federal levels has been appalling – I have been continually shocked and disappointed at the failure to adhere to public health recommendations and research.”
In their article, the team noted that policy should be guided by public health guidelines, which in some cases have been overshadowed by political machinations.
“Our recommendation going forward is to simply let politics be guided by scientific and public health considerations rather than political expediency,” Mueller wrote.