Why Giving Wyoming an "F" for Social Distancing Is Misleading

FILE - In this Jan. 14, 2014, file photo, Wyoming State Treasurer Mark Gordon sits in his office in the State Capitol in Cheyenne, Wyo. Gordon is among those seeking the Republican nomination to succeed Gov. Matt Mead. The winner in the Republican primary on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, will likely meet Democratic former state Rep. Mary Throne, of Cheyenne, in November. Throne faces three little-known opponents in the Democratic primary. (AP Photo/Ben Neary, File)

FILE – In this Jan. 14, 2014, file photo, Wyoming State Treasurer Mark Gordon sits in his office in the State Capitol in Cheyenne, Wyo. Gordon is among those seeking the Republican nomination to succeed Gov. Matt Mead. The winner in the Republican primary on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018, will likely meet Democratic former state Rep. Mary Throne, of Cheyenne, in November. Throne faces three little-known opponents in the Democratic primary. (AP Photo/Ben Neary, File)

An NBC News article published today, in addition to carping about the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, contains a section highlighting the states’ relative performance when it comes to social distancing.

Based on data collected by Unacast, billed in this 2017 write-up as “The Startup That Just Might Threaten Google,” states are being given letter grades for how well they’re implementing social distancing. As described in the article:

Poor grades for social distancing

A majority of the U.S. population is staying at home, and that drastic change in behavior appears to be slowing the spread of the virus, the experts say.

But a handful of states have resisted statewide directives, even though cities in some of those states have imposed their own. Florida’s governor issued a stay-at-home order Wednesday after days of pressure — and college students congregated for spring break on Florida’s beaches and then returned to their homes all around the nation.

As of Thursday, Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota had no known orders in place. In Texas, Pennsylvania and Alabama, some cities have imposed their own restrictions, but there is no statewide rule.

Unacast, which tracks the movements of vast numbers of people via cellphone location data, has created a social distancing scoreboard, grading states on the extent to which residents are staying apart, based on changes from previous movement patterns. Fourteen states got C’s, another 14 got D’s and one, Wyoming, got an F.

An “F”? That sounds pretty bad. Like Wyoming is seriously dropping the ball here. Or something.

Or…could it be…that Wyoming ranks 49th out of 50 in terms of population density, with 6 people per square mile?  (Compare this to New Jersey, with 1,208 people per square mile; or Michigan, with 174 people per square mile.) That a state with far fewer people tends to have businesses (including ones deemed “essential”) spread further apart?

Setting aside the unnerving reminder that we’re all being tracked — often by third parties we may not even be aware of — via our cellphones…

…which probably shouldn’t be set aside, but is a discussion better suited to its own article(s), what, exactly, is the value of this metric? Do we need to sound the alarm bells? Get on the horn with Governor Mark Gordon and lambast him for failing to implement a statewide stay-at-home order? Send in the National Guard?

Or should we, perhaps, take a look at the data? How many confirmed cases of COVID-19 does Wyoming currently have? 153. How many deaths? Zero. What is Wyoming’s per capita infection rate? .0003.  (153 divided by an estimated 2020 population of 567,025.) And that’s rounding up! Where does Wyoming rank among the states in terms of the number of cases? 50th. Deaths? 50th.

Oh. So, we’re giving Wyoming an “F” for social distancing. And it is, so far, the state least-impacted by the virus. Maybe it’s just me, but this kind of makes me wonder if this might not be a bogus metric.

As news and social media consumers, we are fed a steady diet of numbers and graphs and models on a daily basis. If ever there were a time to exercise discernment, now is that time.

Update: As of 12:00 PM MDT, the number of reported cases in Wyoming is now 162, as an astute reader pointed out to me on Twitter. The death toll remains at zero. Wyoming is 49th in number of cases (Alaska is 50th) and remains 50th in the number of deaths.