To an extent, this is probably a function of the message Trump himself is offering, a message that’s generally mirrored in conservative media. The president has sought to downplay the threat the pandemic poses, at least in part out of a desire to prevent significant economic damage. Republicans trust Trump, and many are probably following his cues on being less worried about what might happen.
But part of it may also be a function of where the coronavirus has spread the most. About three-quarters of the confirmed cases in the United States are in states that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. About half are in New York alone.
It seems understandable that the virus would seem like less of a threat to people in places where its spread is less pervasive. But the crisis in New York can muddy the spread of the virus all across the country.
Let’s look at it another way. The number of cases in the state — largely in New York City — breaks our scale.
If we take New York out of the mix, the distribution of confirmed cases still indicates that blue states, which often more heavily urban and populous ones, have the most cases. But this also reveals that there are a number of states that preferred Trump in 2016 and that now have a significant number of cases.
Of the 13 states with the most confirmed coronavirus cases, seven are red states.
That graph, though, doesn’t entirely convey what’s happening. New York has more cases in part because it’s got more people. If we control for population, showing the number of cases per 100,000 residents in a state, other problem areas emerge. The District of Columbia, for example, has the fifth-most cases as a function of population. Louisiana has more cases as a function of population than any other red state, by a wide margin.
Two weeks ago, there were fewer than 1,000 cases nationally. Since then, the number of cases has increased across the board. Animating those weekly shifts, you can see New York overtake Washington state, an early epicenter of cases in the United States, and you can see Louisiana emerge from among the red states.
The larger dot on the center line above is Michigan. In the past week, no state has seen a bigger surge in its number of cases, surging from well under 100 to nearly 2,000. In fact, 11 of the 13 states that saw the biggest week-over-week growth as a percentage of the previous total were red states.
That includes states like West Virginia, where the big surge was from one to 22 cases. But it also includes Missouri, which went from one case on March 10 to 11 cases a week ago to 257 now.
It’s impossible to disentangle this from the number of actual tests that have been conducted. New York has conducted the most tests per resident (according to the COVID Tracking Project) and has the most confirmed cases. That’s a correlation that’s not an accident: Authorities have prioritized testing there, in California and in Washington.
Some states, like New Mexico, have conducted more tests than other states with fewer confirmed cases (less than two percent of its tests have been positive). Others, like Ohio, have conducted relatively few tests but have a high rate of positives.
At one point earlier this month, Ohio’s leading public health authority estimated that perhaps as much as one percent of the state might have been infected. The genesis of that claim wasn’t clear, but it makes clear the problem: Fewer tests mean fewer confirmed cases, and an understatement of the pervasiveness of the problem.
Might that be one of the drivers of partisan divide, a failure for some states to actually understand the breadth of the problem that’s already present? New York has been testing aggressively and has found a lot of cases. What if other states did the same?
The data over the past week don’t seem to support the idea that increases are only a function of surges in testing. The states with the biggest increase in cases aren’t necessarily those that ramped up their testing the most.
What’s important is that the number of cases have increased significantly across the board. In states that voted for Clinton in 2016, which make up three-quarters of known cases, the number of new confirmed cases from March 17 to March 24 increased by an average of 530 percent.
In red states, the average increase was 860 percent.