While state policies to curb the spread of COVID-19 have created hardships, a data analysis conducted at Western Washington University shows they make a difference.
Patrick Buckley, a professor of environmental studies, has created maps that compare cases and death rates throughout the United States — as well as throughout Washington.
Nationally, Washington has maintained lower case counts and death rates per 100,000 residents than other states on the West Coast, in the Midwest, on the East Coast and in the South. That’s despite being the first state to have a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 and being the 13th most populous state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Long term, you can see from these maps that Washington as a state has done the right things, even though I hate — hate, hate, hate being stuck inside all the time,” Buckley said from his home office.
Buckley’s maps, called cartograms, depict the number of COVID-19 cases and related death rates per 100,000 residents by color and size, often leading to images that look quite different than normal maps.
The first six months of the pandemic — January through June — New York and other East Coast states were swollen and purple, indicating the highest number of cases and deaths in the country.
“There’s a dragonhead or some kind of beast in the Northeast,” Buckley said.
Buckley is creating the maps using data The New York Times gathers from health departments in each state. His aim is to paint a clearer picture for the average person of what’s happening in their state and why, even though it may be difficult, limiting time outside the home and wearing masks in public are important steps to take.
“The media is awash with maps on the virus, but the current ones fail to provide the ordinary citizen with a good analysis of the risk they currently face in their particular state, and the success, or lack thereof, of their state’s policies in addressing this pandemic,” Buckley said in a university news release about the project.
Buckley points to New York as an example of a state where policies have made a difference. While the death toll remains high, the state was able to move from the highest of five levels of cases from January through June to the lowest level from July through September.
“COVID-19 has shown a very active movement across the country, effectively fleeing states with strong policies to contain it,” Buckley said in the release. “Strong state policies work.”
In Washington, Buckley took a closer look at COVID-19 cases and deaths by county.
The state maps show that despite being more rural, Eastern Washington counties have fared worse. The maps show lower case rates in King and Pierce counties than in Yakima and several other counties east of the Cascades.
“Unlike people think, their risk is higher in more rural areas than in the urban areas, at least right now,” Buckley said.
Yakima County is in the highest of both sets of categories, with up to 5,000 cases and up to 150 deaths per 100,000 residents through the pandemic.
Much of Western Washington outside of King County, including Skagit County, is in the lowest of both sets of categories, with 1,250 or fewer cases and 35 or fewer deaths per 100,000 residents.
Skagit County Health Officer Howard Leibrand said that doesn’t mean county residents should get lax about such policies as wearing masks and foregoing gatherings, even for the holidays.
“I think it’s too bad that there’s this misconception that these are the Democratic governor’s guidelines because they are not. They are public health guidelines,” he said. “These are well thought out, well researched, well supported public health guidelines, and they do work if they are followed.”
Yakima County was a good example of what following guidelines can do as it addressed a spike in cases over the summer.
“When they had that original, first wave that they had back in the summer, with implementation of masking along with better adherence to guidelines in general … they turned that around right away and the rates were declining faster than anywhere in the state,” Leibrand said. “Following the guidelines, including masking, is what did it.”
As the anticipated fall surge has arrived in Skagit County and throughout the country, more states, including Iowa, North Dakota and Utah, have recently implemented masking requirements such as the one put in place in Washington by Gov. Jay Inslee early in the pandemic.
“The traditional states whose governors have declined the opportunity to make governor’s guidelines are starting to now because the situation has gotten so much worse,” Leibrand said. “They are seeing that the advantages of applying guidelines far outweighs any disadvantages.”
Washington was an early adopter of many public health recommendations because incidents including COVID-19 hot spots at nursing homes and what became known as super-spreader events happened here first.
“We got an early wakeup call … which opened a lot of people’s eyes to the problem,” Leibrand said.
Despite what’s being referred to as pandemic fatigue, particularly over missing out on family and social gatherings as the holidays approach, following guidelines can reduce the transmission of COVID-19, reduce pressure on medical workers and save lives.
“If those guidelines were followed, I’m certain there would be a dramatic difference in what we’re seeing now,” Leibrand said.