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Opinion >  Column

Spin Control: Whose approach to the pandemic was best? With COVID-19, everyone can have their own favorite numbers

March 5, 2022 Updated Sun., March 6, 2022 at 1:39 p.m.

Gov. Jay Inslee is shown wearing a mask.   (SSR)
Gov. Jay Inslee is shown wearing a mask.  (SSR)

The numbers are the numbers.

That’s what Gov. Jay Inslee said last week when he announced he was moving up the date for lifting the mask mandate but was not lifting the emergency declaration for COVID-19. In the press conference that followed, he was asked why not lift both, as Republicans had already been asking.

Inslee said he didn’t know where the Republicans were getting their numbers, but “if they want to sit down with me and look at the numbers, I’m very willing to talk with them.”

He then indicated that any such confab might include some comments about Inslee’s belief that Washington Republicans “just always wanted to follow Donald Trump,” who refused to provide aid to the state when requested, claimed COVID would be over in a few weeks and “then he told us you could take horse deworming products.”

The antipathy between Democrat Inslee and the former Republican president is well documented. But for the sake of accuracy, while Trump once speculated about the efficacy of injecting bleach to fight the virus and said he took hydroxychloroquine, a drug used to fight malaria but unproven against COVID, it primarily has been Trump allies pushing Ivermectin, primarily used to deworm livestock.

While Republicans in the Legislature are far more conservative than Inslee, only a handful could be considered truly Trumpian.

Inslee repeated the offer to “talk to them about the numbers.” But while the Republicans likely have numbers of their own they’d counter with, it’s unlikely they’ll all be sitting down any time soon after his segue about Trump.

The numbers, it turns out, are plentiful, and different ones can be used to bolster any claims about COVID.

Inslee is right that Washington has among the best numbers when it comes to the rate of COVID deaths compared to population. It currently ranks fifth among the states, with 1,578 deaths per 1 million people, slightly behind Maine and slightly ahead of Alaska and Oregon. Hawaii, which had some of the strictest rules, at one time requiring quarantines for visitors, has the fewest, with 947 deaths per 1 million people.

The 10 states at the other end of the rankings – all with at least twice the death rate as Washington – are states with Republican governors and legislatures, and others with Democratic governors and Legislatures. Some are primarily rural, like Mississippi, which, with 4,083 deaths per million, has the worst rate.

But Arizona, which, like Washington, has a mixture of urban and rural areas, is second to last with 3,840 deaths per million. New Jersey, which is primarily urban, is fourth from the bottom with 3,715 deaths per million.

It’s not an urban-rural, or Democrat-Republican thing, because Democratic Massachusetts and Republican Indiana have almost identical rates of 3,417 and 3,411, respectively.

On Tuesday, in her response to the State of the Union address, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds suggested her state had taken the right approach to COVID, and, like other Republican governors, decided “mandates weren’t the answer.”

Iowa’s death rate from COVID is significantly higher than Washington’s, at 2,905 per million. But to be fair, Utah, with a Republican state government, has a lower COVID death rate than Washington, at 1,386 per million.

One might guess that it’s the vaccination rate. Washington’s current rate for full vaccination is 71.5%, which would explain why it is doing better than Iowa, where the full vaccination rate is 61.2%, but not why it is doing worse than Utah, which has a vaccination rate of 63.3%. Washington has more than twice the population of Utah and Iowa, but about the same as Arizona.

Some people argue that statistics like the COVID death rate must be weighed against other figures, like unemployment. Washington’s current unemployment rate is 4.4%, compared to 4.1% for Arizona, 3.5% for Iowa and 2.2% for Utah. The numbers change every month, and they’ve been improving for all four states over the last six.

Others will argue COVID statistics must be measured against other losses, such as the lost learning for children who spent months or an entire school year at home with lessons on a computer screen. But those effects might not be known for years.

Test scores are down now. They might bounce back next year, or stay down for several years. Most children are resilient, but the ones who suffer anxiety, depression or other bad effects from being away from the classroom might not be something that can be reduced to “the numbers.”

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