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    Moved to the background, pandemic deaths still are shaped by politics

    About every three minutes last month, an American died of the coronavirus.

    Compared to other months during the two years prior, that toll is comparably mild. In January, for example, there was a death from covid-19 in the United States more than once a minute. But August was worse than June, for example. So far this year, more than a quarter of a million people have died of the disease — a toll far larger than even a bad flu season — though much of the country clearly considers the pandemic over.

    And, as has obviously been the case, deaths from the coronavirus are inextricably linked to politics.

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    A lengthy new report at ProPublica elevates a specific example of how politics affected the response to the virus. It explores the situation at a hospital in Montana, where Republican leadership blocked vaccine mandates, even for health-care workers. Gov. Greg Gianforte (R), elected in November 2020, quickly enacted policies aimed at minimizing the perception of the danger posed by the virus upon taking office. The article is a grim portrait of how the hospital was forced to scramble to care for sick and dying patients, even as political leaders scored points with ostentatious opposition to efforts to treat the pandemic seriously.

    It’s a snapshot of a divergence along political lines that is pervasive nationally even today.

    Over the course of the pandemic, more people have contracted the virus and died of it in counties that voted for Joe Biden in 2020 than in ones that voted for Donald Trump. But late last year, the toll in counties that backed Trump by more than 20 points passed the toll in counties that supported Biden by that margin.

    That’s despite those strongly pro-Biden counties being home to more than 30 percent more people. If we control for population, we see that while infection rates are fairly similar regardless of party, the death toll has been far worse in counties that backed Trump. The counties in which Trump won by the widest margin have seen a cumulative population-adjusted death toll that’s 42 percent higher than counties that backed Biden by the widest margin.

    In 2020, Biden-voting counties (overall) had 8 percent more deaths than Trump-voting ones, once you adjust for population. In 2021, Trump-voting counties had more than 50 percent more population-adjusted deaths. In 2022, the toll has been about 40 percent higher per resident in Trump counties.

    It’s often the case that Biden-voting counties see more population-adjusted infections in a month (though this is, of course, affected by the regularity with which people seek out and report tests). But the last time there were more population-adjusted deaths in blue counties than in red ones was in early 2021.

    A central factor here, of course, is vaccinations. There’s an obvious divergence in the death toll in mid-2021 on the graphs above, one that occurred shortly after Biden- and Trump-voting counties began to separate on likelihood of vaccination. (On the graphs below, June 2021 is indicated with a vertical line to show the point at which the rates of full vaccination began to diverge. Then the delta variant hit.)

    Of course, it isn’t only vaccines. The ProPublica story also explores the importance of the right’s embrace of unproven treatments for covid-19, such as the drug ivermectin. When a prominent Republican figure in the state fell ill, her family pushed for the patient to receive that drug and hydroxychloroquine, in keeping with arguments from the political right about the efficacy of those medications as treatments. Elected officials joined the fight. The patient died.

    The idea that there exist medications that can broadly protect the unvaccinated has been compelling for a few reasons. For one, it allows those on the right to continue to position themselves against the establishment and “elites” like government medical officials. For another, it suggests that the pandemic was never as big a deal as it was made out to be, a common argument as the currently most-prevalent variant appears to less frequently result in death.

    The embrace of ivermectin was a potent example of how politics overwhelmed practicality during the pandemic, as I noted earlier this year. That article was thrown back at me repeatedly in recent weeks following the release of a new — dubious — study purported to show that the drug was effective against the virus. For many people, it’s more politically (or economically) rewarding to elevate vague or shaky claims about the effectiveness of random drugs than to admit that the vaccines themselves proved very effective at reducing the death toll.

    What happened at St. Peter’s Health in Helena, Mont., was a microcosm of fights happening across the country, fights often centered on politics and political views. The effect is that, even as the omicron variant allows many Americans to focus attention away from the coronavirus, the virus does more damage in more-Republican places.

    In August, 16 out of every 10 million residents of Trump-voting counties died of covid-19 every day. That’s not very many, thankfully. But it’s still nearly a third higher than the rate of deaths in Biden-voting ones.



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