Red, Blue, and COVID

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

As soon as things started getting hairy last spring regarding COVID-19 (shutdowns being implemented, “15 Days to Slow the Spread” stretching out indefinitely, mask discouragement morphing into mask idolatry), I started tracking “the numbers.” Not because I put full faith in their accuracy, but because I wanted to track the trends over time.


I’m still doing that — mostly because I’m a nerd. But it’s been edifying along the way to watch each of the states, with their respective approaches, and how they’ve fared in the face of the pandemic.

Many will recall that it was Memorial Day Weekend last year when a less-than-socially-distanced, raucous pool party at the Lake of the Ozarks, here in my beloved State of Missouri, sent the national media into a tizzy. I am happy to report that despite the consternation caused by that (purported) cauldron of COVID, Missouri went the way of many other states last summer: a mid-summer uptick, followed by a mid-late-fall uptick. (And I fully expect the Lake is in full swing as I write this.)

And now? Thankfully, Missouri, like most of the U.S., has seen a steady decline in cases and deaths. And, since even the CDC seems to agree that we’ve rounded the bend, I thought it might be interesting to take a gander at how things are going currently in the states. (Note: There’s no way to truly control for all the variables in play, particularly as Americans have been moving in and about the several states fairly freely since the initial stay-at-home orders were lifted. This is a 30,000-foot look at trends.)

Cases Per Million

Worldometers has been a solid go-to for tracking and was kind enough early on to include a breakdown of numbers-per-million, to adjust for varying population densities.  The “Top 10” states in terms of cases-per-million (i.e., those with the highest number of cases per capita) are:

  1. North Dakota (144,234, or 14.2%
  2. Rhode Island (143,240, or 14.3%)
  3. South Dakota (140,350, or 14.0%)
  4. Iowa (127,311, or 12.7%)
  5. Utah (126,593, or 12.7%)
  6. Tennessee (126,282, or 12.6%)
  7. Arizona (120,964, or 12.1%)
  8. Nebraska (115,438, or 11.5%)
  9. South Carolina (115,157, or 11.5%)
  10. Oklahoma (114,425, or 11.4%)

Aside from Rhode Island, those are mostly red states, and tend to be on the less populous side — only three of them are in the top half of the country population-wise. They’re fairly spread out geographically, as well.

So, how do the “Bottom Ten” (i.e., states with the lowest number of cases per capita) shake out?

  1. Hawaii (25,514, or 2.6%)
  2. Vermont (38,783, or 3.9%)
  3. Oregon (47,657, or 4.8%)
  4. Maine (50,392, or 5.0%)
  5. Washington (57,513, or 5.8%)
  6. D.C. (69,285, or 6.9%)
  7. New Hampshire (72,588, or 7.3%)
  8. Maryland (76,051, or 7.6%)
  9. Virginia (79,101, or 7.9%)
  10. West Virginia (89,997, or 9.0%)

Those are obviously mostly blue states/districts, with West Virginia being the exception. Again, only three are in the top half population-wise. Geographically, they’re primarily East/Northeast with Oregon and Hawaii thrown in for good measure.

“Aha!” one might say…”Blue states clearly have handled the pandemic better than red states have.” Well, not so fast. It’s important to look at some other metrics, as well.


Deaths Per Million

The “Top 10” states in terms of deaths (attributed to COVID) per million (a dubious distinction, to be sure), are:

  1. New Jersey (2,950, or .30%)
  2. New York (2,754, or .28%)
  3. Massachusetts (2,592, or .26%)
  4. Rhode Island (2,556, or .26%)
  5. Mississippi (2,456, or .25%)
  6. Arizona (2,422, or .24%)
  7. Connecticut (2,311, or .23%)
  8. Louisiana (2,275, or .23%)
  9. Alabama (2,273, or .23%)
  10. South Dakota (2,272, or .23%)

So, about evenly split, in terms of red states and blue states, with the blue states heavy at the top. Right off the bat, you can see the effects of the early part of the pandemic slamming the Northeast and more populous areas. Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Arizona, unfortunately, hold the distinction of landing on both “Top 10” lists.

And what of the “Bottom Ten”?

  1. Hawaii (352, or .04%)
  2. Vermont (409, or .04%)
  3. Alaska (495, or .05%)
  4. Maine (614, or .06%)
  5. Oregon (632, or .06%)
  6. Utah (718, or .07%)
  7. Washington (765, or .08%)
  8. New Hampshire (994, or .10%)
  9. Nebraska (1,163, or .12%)
  10. Colorado (1,167, or .12%)

Again, mostly blue states, six of those coinciding with the lowest cases per million, so there’s some decent consistency there. Those states also are mostly in the lower half population-wise, and again, fairly geographically diverse.

Unemployment Rate

What if we take into consideration the extent to which these states locked down and the impact this had on their economies? One measure of that might be the current Unemployment Rate. (A deeper dive would include a look at pre-pandemic rates — I’ll leave that for another article, another day.) Which states (as of April 2021, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics) have the highest Unemployment Rates?

  1. Hawaii (8.5%)
  2. California (8.3%)
  3. New York (8.2%)
  4. New Mexico (8.2%)
  5. Connecticut (8.1%)
  6. Nevada (8.0%)
  7. New Jersey (7.5%)
  8. D.C. (7.5%)
  9. Pennsylvania (7.4%)
  10. Louisiana (7.3%)

Hmmm. A lot of blue states on that list (all but one). Obviously, those include several of the most populous states.

Which states have the lowest Unemployment Rates?

  1. Nebraska (2.8%)
  2. New Hampshire (2.8%)
  3. South Dakota (2.8%)
  4. Utah (2.8%)
  5. Vermont (2.9%)
  6. Idaho (3.1%)
  7. Kansas (3.5%)
  8. Alabama (3.6%)
  9. Montana (3.7%)
  10. Iowa (3.8%)

A lot of red states on that list (all but two). And yes, these tend to be less populous states.

Mask Mandates

I wondered how the respective unemployment rates compared to how “locked down” given states were. Obviously, there are different measures of “locked-downedness,” but mask mandates appear to offer a strong correlation to the level of restrictions a given state has imposed.

So, which of the Top 10 states for Unemployment Rates (i.e., highest rates) have/had mask mandates (as of April 2021)? All of them. (Louisiana lifted theirs effective April 28, and New Jersey lifted theirs effective May 28.)

And which of the Bottom 10 states for Unemployment Rates (i.e., lowest rates) have/had mask mandates (as of April 2021)? Kansas lifted theirs on April 1; Alabama’s expired April 9; Utah’s April 10; New Hampshire’s was lifted April 16. Only Vermont’s still remains in effect.


Miscellaneous Comparisons

Though I live in Missouri, the proximity to Illinois and the contrast between the two states has offered some interesting comparisons throughout the pandemic, particularly given the current red state/blue state dichotomy.

Currently, Missouri ranks 33rd in cases per million and 31st in deaths per million per Worldometers. We have the 13th best Unemployment Rate (4.1%) and we never had a statewide mask mandate.

Illinois? 17th in cases per million, 15th in deaths per million. 41st best Unemployment Rate (7.1%) and a mask mandate that was only lifted for those who are fully vaccinated on May 13th (and remains in effect for those who are not).

Two other states that have frequently been compared in terms of their performance relative to the pandemic are Florida and New York.

Florida ranks 18th in cases per million and 26th in deaths per million. They rank 22nd in Unemployment Rate (4.8%) and have no mask mandate. In contrast, New York ranks 15th in cases per million, 2nd in deaths per million, 48th in Unemployment Rate (8.2%), and still has a mask mandate in effect for those who are not fully vaccinated (having lifted it for those who are as of May 19.) Give me Florida over New York any day.

Conclusion: I’ll Take Red

Red states have had some of the higher infection rates, but the highest death rates have been evenly split, with the blue states owning the top four spots. Blue states have had the lowest infection and death rates. However, red states have fared better in terms of unemployment and have been less restrictive of their residents.


COVID has had a detrimental effect on us all, blue and red alike. On balance, I’m more appreciative of the red state efforts to err on the side of liberty.


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