40 Comments

Even when we can agree on the data, we only know part of the picture. CA locked down, FL didn't and they have similar COVID outcomes. What we don't know is this: if CA did not lock down, would things have been better, worse or about the same in terms of COVID outcomes? If FL did lock down, would things have been better, worse or about the same in terms of COVID outcomes? We can only make judgments on the data we have.

Also in terms of FL, they are in the middle of the pack in terms of COVID outcomes for state residents. But, they have also hosted a number of people (such as the most recent spring breaks) who haven't engaged in mitigation strategies (such as mask-wearing), who then left for other states. How many of those people become infected with COVID and spread it to folks in other states? Again, we don't know.

The problem with information voids is that there are people who try to fill them up -- which is one source of misinformation.

Expand full comment
author

I think one real problem is that there is stuff we don't fully understand. The article by Sid Mukherjee in the New Yorker is one of the few to fully address this, with the appropriate humility, too. There is something that's not fully adding up in terms of our explanations, and it may be a compilation of many small things, stochasticity, or one big unknown yet to be discovered. I'm genuinely not sure. But as you point out, that creates a void that we fill with our preferred explanations--which, probably, have some validity. But even the proportion of their validity is, yet, unclear to me. So yes, exactly back to that question: what explains CA vs FL? I am not sure, and I think it's good to just admit that we aren't sure.

Expand full comment

Excellent point. I wish enough people had the humility to say "I am not sure" (I sure as heck don't). Unfortunately, there are too many people out there who are rarely right, but never admit that they are wrong.

I also have to admit that as a journalism professor, I have been just appalled at how many journalists screw up basic facts, as in the story about the number of excess deaths. And don't get me started on how many journalists can't interpret reports on scientific studies!

Expand full comment

Why did Sweden in 2020 have the same percentage of excess deaths as the USA, putting it roughly in the middle of the E.U. pack? They had no mask mandate, nothing was closed except gatherings of 50+ people. I can't explain it. Maybe the studies of MMR vaccination correlation will provide some insight soon.

Expand full comment

A close friend of mine has a daughter doing graduate work in Sweden. Schools went online. People socially distanced, and many wore masks. The economy was somewhat open, in terms of restaurants, but with customers spaced out and occupancy limited. Lots of people worked from home. So, yes, Sweden was officially open, but the inhabitants of the country did engage in responsible behavior in terms of spreading the virus.

Expand full comment

Presumably a lot of it depends on what "locked down" means. If "locking down" means closing beaches and playgrounds and elementary schools and outdoor dining, and requiring hand sanitizer at restaurants, that seems very different than if "locking down" means banning indoor food and drink service and requiring masks on public transit.

Also, Los Angeles and the Bay Area have had very different covid outcomes despite the state rules in those regions being the same. (I don't know if there were very different local rules, but my guess is that there's a major contribution from the fact that low-income workers in the Bay Area often super-commute from the Central Valley, and don't get counted in Bay Area statistics.)

Expand full comment

I think the difference is folks in the Bay Area are mostly following the rules, and people in SoCal largely don’t. My SoCal friends say people have been behaving as normal down there since last summer. I live in Berkeley, and people here are hiding in their houses. I get yelled at here for jogging without a mask on mostly empty streets, and I’ve struggled to convince some of my friends that it’s safe to do things outside. Some of it is that people are scared and misinformed about how the virus transmits, but I agree with zeynep that masks, especially, have become a symbol of tribe membership, which is not helping if the goal it to get everyone to wear them in situations where they’re actually useful. I’ve been very frustrated with the extremes.

Expand full comment

And I think you are also correct about front line workers. If you look at the local data by zip code, neighborhoods like East Oakland that are home to a lot of lower income front line workers have been much harder hit than the broader community.

Expand full comment
author

That is the pattern in most of US, Canada and Western Europe (where I have access to such data) and I suspect for most of the world as well (where I have not yet had the chance to do a deep dive). That's another problem with this excessive focus on individual actions and masks (which are good and useful and I put my career on the line to try to defend early on!) and also missing what's not working... Makes it harder for us to help those who need and deserve assistance to protect themselves.

Expand full comment

So true. We just don’t know all the answers, and we probably never will. That said, if the results are going to be the pretty much the same, I would rather “live” than be “locked down”.

Expand full comment

I live in Michigan, and have been vaccinated, so I generally feel I'm personally safe, as are most of my friends. But Michigan is doing very badly right now--it leads the nation in new infections (that's not exactly the right measure, but it's something along those lines). People are blaming their neighbors for being too lax, and for the restaurants opening up too early (they were shifted up to a 50% limit March 1). Clearly that's not the reason, since most states are now at 50%, and besides, not that many people eat in restaurants, and most states are equally opened up now. Others have blamed opening up high school and college sports, which may be closer to the mark, since that's where a lot of the outbreaks are. But all of my friends are still laughing at Florida, which is doing way better than Michigan. And it's all about the tribes (I'm a libertarian, but all my friends are progressives). You are absolutely right about this being one of the brain-eaters.

Expand full comment
author

Yes, Michigan looks like it is heading into a (needless) tragedy. That’s one of the downsides of the polarization eating our brains. Compare the amount of social media/media attention on Florida (middling, no big crisis, facing B.1.1.7 but no uptick in hospitalization) to Michigan (in crisis, did I say crisis, and big uptick in hospitalization that’s been visible for weeks).

Expand full comment

Just this morning I saw a bunch of my FB friends flaming against 'them' (and clearly mean Republicans) for causing this surge. 'Blockheads' was one of the mildest, and that was after I posted a link to your article on my FB page. And that was from a well-regarded medical professor at my university (I'm Prof. Emeritus, FWIW)

Expand full comment
author

The tragic part is that, while no doubt irresponsible behavior and/or bad guidelines don’t help, most of the victims of this pandemic are either the elderly, or the (overwhelmingly poor and minority) frontline essential workers. Instead, we just focus on some random person throwing a toddler tantrum in a grocery store over masks because.. well, that’s easy to blame that person. Meanwhile, most workplaces just don’t have good standards for their workers, period, and it shows loudly in the statistics.

Expand full comment

I so appreciate this article. It is important that we hold all governors and all states to the same standards- while also appreciating particular difficulties presented. Ever since Cuomo refused initially to close down NYC, despite the request of DeBlasio, I have wondered why the press has treated him so lightly while trashing other governors- particularly republican ones. Despite Cuomo's assertion of his own leadership in his book, NY remains the state which has had the second highest death rate in the country.

Expand full comment
author

Cuomo remains a mystery. He literally sold a book for $4 million, on the assumption that maybe a million people would buy a book from him on pandemic leadership?

Expand full comment

According to Alex Shephard in the New Republic, Crown has only sold 45,000 copies of Cuomo's book, and now, because of the scandals, has stopped promoting his book. Assuming Crown netted $20 per book (likely a high estimate), that means they only got $900,000 revenue for a $4 million investment. Ouch. Of course, in the same article, Shephard reports that in 2014, Cuomo was given $700,000 by HarperCollins for a memoir, which sold only 3000 hard cover copies and 13 audiobooks.

Of course, this shows how quickly things can change. In April-May, Cuomo was earning his marks for his briefings on COVID. He was also on CNN frequently, especially the Andy and Chris skits on Chris Cuomo's show. Andrew Cuomo was "hot," and publishers bid on his trendability. By the time the book comes out, Andrew Cuomo has "cooled" some, and now he is holding on to his governorship by a thread. Makes for a good case study for the publishing industry.

Expand full comment

Your very correct comments about Cuomo's popularity last year raises another q which is why? Whose decision was it that he be nationally broadcast every day? Why was his own slow start in recognizing the seriousness of COVID rarely mentioned by the media? Although he posited himself as the "anti-Trump" he in fact always seemed to me to be a lot like Trump. I didn't find his press conferences soothing as many people have described them- rather- they seemed oddly self absorbed. I wondered about the journalistic ethics of him being on Chris Cuomo's show. As a journalism prof, do you have any thoughts about that?

Expand full comment

I thought Cuomo was reasonably effective in terms of consistently presenting information at a time when providing information about COVID and doing it consistently was lacking.

In terms of style, I agree that Cuomo's ego could be jarring. I think Ned Lamont in CT has done a better job that way.

I thought CNN should never have had Gov. Cuomo on his brother's show. It needlessly brings up all sorts of issues for having done so.

Expand full comment

Thanks for your thoughts. I had been wondering what a journalism expert would think about the Cuomo Bros show! I live in NC and found Gov Roy Cooper's then daily press conferences (now once or twice a week) much more informative and, unlike Cuomo, his style is modest and not ego driven. I didn't follow Lamont.

Expand full comment
author

It's a bit of a mystery to me, to be honest, how that blindspot is there, so obviously, without getting more comment.

Expand full comment

Both left and right are equally able to turn off their brains for the right narcissist than snares them like the Pied Piper.

Expand full comment

Well, for a period of time, perhaps.

Expand full comment

For many - of both political colors - correctness is a low priority whether you're looking at internal values or external reputational and financial rewards. Thank you for highlighting the consequences so clearly.

Expand full comment

I'm interested in how Florida in particular became this scapegoat symbol, more so than Georgia, Mississippi, Iowa, or other states that either have partisan symbolism or have had notable policy or outcome issues. I think South Dakota has a little bit of this symbolic role, and perhaps Texas (though it's hard for me to tell, as someone who lives in Texas and therefore thinks about Texas news more directly rather than as a symbol). I assume it has some connection to the early usage of beaches as the visual symbol of "people being bad", and perhaps some connection to the "Florida Man" phenomenon.

I think it's also interesting that I have seen so very few news or opinion stories asking us to look at states or localities that have had persistently low case counts to see what they're doing right (for much of the pandemic that would have been Washington, Oregon, Vermont, Maine, though I haven't looked recently to see if they've held up). I don't know that these stories would have been more justified, but it seems notable that they just didn't exist as a major phenomenon the way the scolding and shaming articles did.

Expand full comment
author

I think it's a combination DeSantis (he seems to be an R president-track person) and the spring break/beach reaction that has put Florida at the center of the fury, rather than Georgia or Texas. The spring break/beach is part two or three of this trifecta series (haven't decided the order). We've really had a strong national reaction to the sight of young people having fun (even if I agree they weren't always wise, but the response was clearly disproportional to the threat they posed to themselves or to others).

Expand full comment

Despite the continued clarity of your writing on this, there seems to be so little momentum for or interest in examining these rather consequential failures. As you say, they haven't wreaked as much havoc as the deniers have, but in what world could we tolerate a standard as low as that?! I don't know whether the massive loss of public trust that's accelerated during the pandemic will fade as real life offers more opportunities for distraction and engagement, but given that you and others have described this as a starter pandemic, it seems imperative to reckon in more depth with everything that's gone wrong.

One thing I'm really curious about is the effects of school closures. My own priors incline me to think that they've been close to disastrous for kids in most cases, but I also know that kids like I was often learn very little in school, and much more at home. In e.g. California, the answers would be a significant contribution to assessing Newsom et al's role in the crisis.

Expand full comment
author

There is rarely a lot of interest in let's figure out what we screwed up, no? It's totally understandable. On schools, my guess is the effects are widely divergent, and that for some kids, it's been totally fine if not great, but as usual, just like the way we focus on beaches but not the grocery store workers and line cooks who fall ill, we may not be focusing on the kids who are likely most hurt by our inability to keep schools open safely.

Expand full comment

We need 21st century health guidelines on partisan news (but of course that would be politicized)

About a year ago, I stopped watching Rachel Maddow (yes, it was actually hard) and I quickly regained so much perspective. I can only control my own actions, and I don’t have to hate others who are so often just LARPing in this ridiculous game we’ve all been pulled into.

Expand full comment
author

I don't watch enough TV to comment, but I've heard similar sentiments about cable TV--that it's not good as a consistent form of information source.

Expand full comment

Another symbol of polarization eating our brains were the number of red state vs blue states takes during the very early weeks of vaccinations. And local pharmacy vs chain pharmacy. And socialized medicine vs privatized medicine. And and. Mostly because West Virginia (and Israel) had a good first couple of weeks. Which were not really that meaningful now that we are way deep into the vaccination process (blue states actually appear better but that may be due to reluctance in red states rather than govt).

Expand full comment
author

Indeed. There is a lot of reading into trends (that fit one's priors) without follow-up. Again, these are very understandable processes, but the responsibility of an institution (or a substantive critic) is to say, wait, let's keep looking and trying to understand.

Expand full comment

I agree with the point of the article. However you can also see different types of biases in the various tribes, and polarization only increases that.

Expand full comment

I think New Zealand’s pandemic performance - and specifically that of Jacinda Ardern - is another red vs blue tribal test. It will be interesting to track NZ’s performance going forward, since they have showed signs of regressing after their early ‘star’ showing.

Expand full comment

Oh? As of yesterday, since COVID started last year, NZ has had 2501 cases. Of those, 2408 have recovered, 67 are still active and 26 have died. Of the 67 cases, 66 of them were people who travelled international and were diagnosed in managed facilities at the border. I think we can say that NZ is doing just fine.

Expand full comment

It's pretty horrible that anyone would ever report 19,241 excess deaths. Excess deaths only have the precision of expected death models, and that's definitely not to the individual 1 death.

Expand full comment
author

There is also that, but of course they didn't even get the numbers right. But scientism often relies on such faux precision.

Expand full comment