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Michigan’s sore thumb, and why we shouldn’t buy the idea that the pandemic is down to ‘hot spots’

In terms of the pure raw numbers, a national map of new COVID-19 cases proves to be a fairly effective means of locating major urban areas. It’s not hard to pick out cities like Los Angeles, or Las Vegas, or Chicago, even though none of the states they’re in are among the highly arbitrary list of “hot states.” 

New cases of COVID-19 by county

That’s because in large part, cases of COVID-19 are now very evenly spread across much of the nation. And it’s extremely relieving to see the map below painted in calmer shades of teal when at the start of the year, most of the nation would have been cloaked in unsettling navy.

New cases of COVID-19 expressed as cases per 100,000 population.

However, this map does show some genuine winners and losers over the past few days. For one thing, California now looks remarkably “cool” on this map. With over 2,000 new cases a day, California is still in the top 10 states for new cases. However, the state has driven case counts down and kept them there, with no sign of a “fourth spike.” What does successfully holding the line against COVID-19 during the vaccination period look like? Kind of like this WorldOMeters chart of California daily case counts.

Daily cases of COVID-19 in California show effective suppression of a ‘fourth wave’

But a quick glance up at those maps shows that there are also some states genuinely struggling at the current moment. That’s particularly true of Michigan. On March 2, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer surrendered to pressure (that included attempts on her life) and relaxed the state’s social distancing rules. That included allowing restaurants to reopen for indoor dining to 50% capacity, expanding the capacity of retail stores, and opening up venues like movie theaters and sports facilities. One month later, and the chart for Michigan looks like this.

Daily cases of COVID-19 in Michigan. Guidelines were relaxed on Mar. 2.

Other states appear to have gotten away relatively easy even though they made more egregious changes to the social distancing guidelines. However, it turns out, Michigan relaxed its rules just as the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant was becoming dominant in the area. It was double-whammy of bad timing. 

One other factor emerges when looking at the state closely.

Close up on Michigan, showing cases / 100,000 population.

While the area of Detroit generates the highest number of cases, the “hottest” areas in terms of cases by population are actually on Michigan’s “thumb.” Every one of these counties reporting over 750 cases per 100,000 population is a red county. While in terms of overall vaccination rate, these counties appear to be in line with state (and national) averages, the latest data from Civiqs shows Republican resistance to COVID-19 vaccines is actually slightly up, to 42%. That includes 57% of Republicans under the age of 50. 

Combine high Republican vaccine avoidance with a fast-spreading variant, increasing cases in younger Americans, and rules that make it easier to congregate both at home in in the most risky business environments. Mix well. What comes out is Michigan’s sore thumb.

Multiple states including New York, Florida, and Texas have “stabilized” their cases, but done so at rates that are relatively much higher than those in California. New Jersey simply never stopped being awful after the holidays when other states went down. There’s been an apparent decline in cases there over the past week, but again it won’t be possible to say anything certain until the holiday data is well in the rearview.

But what should be remembered is that the pleasing green color decorating much of the nation still represents a highly significant rate of COVID-19 in almost every county. There are no safe places, and policies matter more than ever as we come down the home stretch toward herd immunity through vaccination. Here’s a quick look at the chart for Alabama.

Daily cases of COVID-19 in Alabama show a continued downward trend since the holiday peak.

Unlike many Republican-led states, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey elected to maintain a state mask mandate even after the holiday peak fell to relatively low levels in March. As a result, the state now has its lowest rate of new cases since May 2020. However, that mask mandate is set to expire on Friday, and Ivey has made it clear she won’t consider continuing it at this point. That’s despite the fact that Alabama has the lowest rate of vaccination in the nation. Multiple counties in the state have a vaccination level lower than 10%. (To be fair, neighboring Georgia is actually much worse. It looks better in total due to a handful of well-vaccinated counties, but has many counties with < 5% vaccination rate). Lifting the mask mandate in Alabama risks doing for that state exactly what happened in Michigan—relaxing effective guidelines exactly as more contagious variants are becoming dominant.

Hopefully vaccinations will outrace the resulting issues, but that’s going to take getting vaccination in gear, and getting Republicans to accept the vaccine. Because the truth is that most of America is still at high risk. If there are not-hot-spots, those are the real exceptions.

Table showing relative number of counties with high, moderate, and low community transmission.

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