Fact-Checking ABC News' State-vs-State COVID-19 Comparisons

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The media likes to compare COVID-19 outcomes in different states based on carefully selected metrics. A closer look indicates that these match-ups are less compelling than reporters think. This has consequences for the public's trust in science.

Throughout the pandemic, we've watched the media follow a predictable formula in their COVID-19 reporting. US states that institute the “right” public health measures out-compete states that refuse to employ the same interventions in terms of cases, deaths and hospitalizations. Whether or not these comparisons accurately depict how well various states actually controlled SARS-COV-2 is irrelevant. Journalists simply select whichever data they need to make the match-ups work. Evidence that doesn't fit the desired framing is excluded.

Over the weekend, ABC News published a textbook example of such reporting. “How did California go from the epicenter of the US pandemic to the lowest statewide transmission rate?” the network asked. Answer:

With the lowest COVID-19 infection rate among all states as of Friday, California, which has some of the strictest mask and vaccination mandates in the country, has managed to flip the script as the former U.S. epicenter of the pandemic. 'They've been very much forward-thinking in terms of policies around vaccination requirements and mandates,' said epidemiologist Dr. John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children's Hospital and an ABC News contributor.

As we'll see, the Golden State's penchant for vaccine and mask mandates cannot possibly explain its recent success in stemming the spread of COVID, because states without those same policies have had comparable outcomes. Instead, the common thread between these different jurisdictions is increasing immunity to the virus through vaccination and infection.

This is yet another example of news outlets refusing to accurately report the pandemic's progress, which has severely undermined the public's trust in mainstream science.

Pick your favorite stat

“As of Friday evening,” ABC continued, “California had an infection rate of 61.1 cases per 100,000 over the past week.” In contrast, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Alaska, all of which oppose vaccine mandates, “had the highest rates over the previous seven days, with each above 450 cases per 100,000 people.” Pretty clear, right? Mandate vaccines and your state does better. Not quite.

Depending on which metric you use, you can make almost any case you want. In February, for example, skeptics of mask mandates and lockdowns used the strikingly similar outcomes in California and Florida to defend the latter's lax COVID-19 response. Some public health experts said at the time that the comparison was unfair because it didn't account for differences in housing density or the number of densely populated cities; income level, age and race can also influence outcomes, they argued.

Still, Florida's relative success was clearly unexpected. As Brian C. Castrucci, DrPH, a former director of state health departments in Georgia and Texas, told Healthline in February,

 I can’t explain why Florida is not worse off than it is. I don’t know why. We discount that little word novel, right [in novel coronavirus]? We’re still learning a lot about this virus.

By summer, California's situation had improved and some experts attributed that progress to the Golden State's “willingness to adopt new policies throughout the pandemic, including COVID-19 vaccine mandates and, in many counties, indoor mask requirements,” the LA Times Reported last month. Interestingly, population density and other variables were apparently no match for mask and vaccine mandates once California was doing better. 

Now that cases and deaths are trending downward in both states, either side can make their argument. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently tweeted that "FL has the lowest COVID rate in the nation," and his critics are pointing to past surges in cases and deaths in response. 

Here's another statistic that further complicates ABC's narrative. According to the network's COVID-19 Tracker, Florida and California are neck-and-neck in terms of vaccine coverage, the former sits at 60 percent fully vaccinated, the latter at 61 percent. DeSantis opposes vaccine mandates, so how are these near-identical vaccination rates to be explained? California's “forward-thinking” requirements, to quote ABC's phrasing, can't possibly explain the situation.

Immunity is the common thread

ABC also reported that “having endured the harshest waves of infections last winter and the delta surge in July, formerly infected Californians may have acquired antibodies and more of a natural immunity to COVID-19.” That's certainly correct; infection-acquired immunity appears to be robust. But that has nothing to do with California's vaccination and masking mandates.

Residents with post-infection immunity either got sick before the vaccines were available, chose not to get a shot once they were rolled out, or had a breakthrough infection. Masking obviously didn't protect these individuals either, though compliance with mask mandates in California has been higher than the US average since at least February 2021, according to Carnegie Mellon University.

Put another way, California is putting COVID in check because a growing number of its residents have vaccine- or infection-acquired immunity; this is not a testament to the efficacy of statewide mandates, which have not been implemented yet anyway.  

Consistency matters

Scientists and science educators spend a lot of time trying to explain why millions of Americans are skeptical of the infection-control measures so many experts recommend. The proliferation of anti-vaccine advocacy online is an important contributor to the problem, but that isn't the only relevant factor.

As I discussed in a recent story, the public's trust in mainstream news sources is near an all-time low. It's not a coincidence that Americans think so little of the press at the same time that their news feeds are populated by agenda-driven COVID stories full of misleading statistics, like the ABC report we've looked at here. If public health experts want Americans to comply the next time a nasty pathogen rears its head, they need to consistently call out the media's bad behavior.