It was refreshing to see conservative columnist Bret Stephens call for a truce in the ideological battle over pandemic policies ("Let's end the COVID blame game," Dec. 2). He even apologized for wrongly opining in the early days of COVID that the population density of liberal urban areas would be the main driver of transmission.
For his argument that the pandemic is making "fools of us all," Stephens found cover in recent surges in mostly bluer states, after long periods earlier this year when red and rural states were spiking.
Citing these peaks in Minnesota, Vermont, New Mexico and Michigan, Stephens strongly implied that there is now little difference in outcomes between blue states, where people and their leaders have embraced preventive measures recommended by health experts, and red states where those measures have been ridiculed and resisted. "Let's quit arguing that COVID is a red- or blue-state thing," Stephens wrote.
In fact, a rather wide red-blue gap persists in the aggregate rates of infections and deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. And the blues are still ahead.
Rankings maintained by the website Statista show that as of Dec. 3, 13 of the 15 states with the highest total infections per 100,000 population were red, or voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020 (one of the 15 not counted as red by my calculation is Arizona, which voted for Trump in 2016 but not in 2020). On the other, better end, all 15 of the states with the lowest number of infections per 100,000 were blue and voted both times against Trump.
Blue Minnesota ranked near the middle, 23rd, despite our recent surge.
On death rates, the color pattern persists, a little less pronounced. Red states account for nine of the 15 with the most deaths per 100,000 (of the 15 not counting as red in my calculation are Arizona and Georgia, both of which voted for Trump in 2016 but not in 2020, and both of which have had very red state leadership on COVID policy).
On the other, better end, 10 of the 15 states with the lowest death rates were blue, or voted both times against Trump (not counted as blue is Wisconsin, which voted for Trump in 2016 but not 2020). Minnesota was one of the blue states in this group with lowest death rates, ranking 39th.
How much do these differences matter? If 39th-ranked Minnesota had the same aggregate death rate as 15th-ranked South Dakota, we would have buried an additional 5,000 people, on top of our current total of about 9,700.
More important, there is overwhelming and continuing consensus among medical and public health professionals that vaccination, masking and social distancing improve the odds against infection, hospitalization and death. States and communities that do more of these things on average should do better than those who do less of these things.
Meanwhile, local and national media continue to foster the impression that Minnesota is worse than other states in pandemic outcomes. A Star Tribune headline on the top of the front page in mid-November shouted, "State's infection rate worst in the U.S." That horror was clarified and deflated in the very first paragraph, with the qualifier that we were worst for "the previous seven days."
Missing from that story and almost all local media coverage in recent weeks was the bigger picture, namely, where Minnesota ranks since the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020, in both infection rates and death rates. The here and now is certainly news, even front-page news. But we need the larger aggregate perspective to be included in more stories as the pandemic flares and ebbs across regions.
We also have to keep our minds open to the complexity and uncertainties of the pandemic. These red-blue rankings might converge, or they might widen again. Correlation on rankings is not necessarily causation. Some red state leaders have done the right things and some blue state leaders have made mistakes. Other factors not directly or entirely related to pandemic policy and politics, such as the percentage of a state's population that is elderly or poor, come into play.
In general, however, the forces on the right have been far more aggressive in politicizing the pandemic, while national leaders such as Dr. Anthony Fauci have implored the public and politicians to unite behind science and to respect public health expertise.
Finally, Stephens was right to urge humility on both sides and to "stop being beastly to others."
But we don't need a cease fire that ignores the aggregate statistics and that disregards medical and scientific consensus.
Dane Smith, of St. Paul, is a senior policy fellow for Growth and Justice.