The COVID-19 situation in Illinois is dire. The media doesn’t seem to be talking about it, even though the situation is presently worse here than it was in many places over the summer. What gives?
This post is pretty far out from what I usually post about. I don’t write about COVID-19 very often, preferring to use this space to focus on my academic interests.
Earlier today, a tweet from Youyang Gu, the creator of covid19-projections.com, caught my eye:
Last week, Illinois reported 15,415 cases in a single day, more than Florida ever did in a single day. This is despite Illinois’ population being 40% lower.
Many of you probably did not know the dire situation in Illinois. That’s because no mainstream media chose to report it.
This captured my interest in several ways:
- I had to dig into lots of different metrics and data sources to study the claims in more depth
- Questions are raised about media framing and bias
- I greatly respect Gu’s excellent forecasting and modeling work
I had some thoughts that I wanted to share on Twitter, but I couldn’t condense them into 280 characters. (That’s probably for the better.) So I started writing a long-form post for myself.
COVID in Illinois is currently worse than in the south over the summer.
Consider Florida. According to covid19-projections.com, at their summer peak on July 3rd, there were an estimated 245 new cases per 100,000 residents, with a confidence interval spanning from 163 / 100k to 367 / 100k. (The absolute number was 52,580 new cases.)
The Texas summer peak, on the same date, estimated 159 new cases per 100,000 residents (likely between 106 and 239, and 46,117 in absolute).
Let’s look at Illinois next. It’s worse. COVID-19 Projections, at the end of October, estimated 327 new cases per 100,000 residents (likely between 218 and 491). There were 41,444 new cases.
Illinois has nearly twice as many cases per 100k residents as Texas did over the summer, and 50% more than Florida did.
This holds when looking at new deaths, too.
- Illinois is reporting an average of 132 deaths per day, or 1.04 per 100k residents, according to the NY Times.
- Over the summer, Florida reported 160 - 180 deaths per day, or 0.83 per 100k residents.
- Over the summer, Texas reported 250 - 270 deaths per day, or 0.93 per 100k residents.
No matter how you look at the data, the current spread of COVID in Illinois exceeds that of Florida or Texas during the summer.
It gets worse.
The mitigations in Illinois are what people argued the south was missing.
Illinois is a blue state with a governor (and, in Chicago, a mayor) who has been aggressive with COVID restrictions. Our policies have been stricter than many states—certainly moreso than in the south—and these were widely believed to have kept cases under control in the spring and summer.
We have similar mitigations in place today. The governor issued a statewide mask mandate months ago. A second stay at home advisory began in the last week. Indoor dining and bars are closed.
And yet cases are surging, and the media isn’t talking about this.
Here’s an example out of Florida, on July 7th: ‘Sickness and death are piling up at the feet of [Florida governor] Ron DeSantis.’ South Florida Democrats call for statewide mask mandate.
Today, “sickness and death” are piling up in Illinois, mask mandates be damned. Illinois’s governor JB Pritzker is doing everything that people were urging DeSantis and Texas’s Abbott to do. We’re still in trouble!
I don’t mean to say that mitigations aren’t effective.
I am not making the claim that mask mandates are ineffective. I am not making the claim that indoor dining shouldn’t have been closed. It’s very possible (and I believe this myself) that without these mitigations, Illinois would be even worse than it is now.
And yet over the spring and summer, the narrative set by the national media very much felt like “if only those southerners were wearing masks,” as if that would have prevented their surge. Illinois shows that the reality is more complicated.
Here’s a Washington Post opinion article from April, titled We must hold politicians responsible for deaths they could have prevented:
DeSantis’s delay in taking steps to save lives — steps that are patently obvious — is reckless in the extreme and morally indefensible. No state is immune to the virus nor to fatalities. But the difference between the inescapable, unpreventable deaths and the death count that will result from willfully ignorant and stubbornly counterproductive decisions falls on the heads of political decision-makers. DeSantis will be morally — if not legally — responsible for hundreds if not thousands of preventable deaths.
So the deaths in Florida were preventable. I don’t disagree. But what about Illinois, where we’re doing everything they’re saying?
Maybe I’m just cynical.
Maybe everything that I’m describing is a product of novelty in news. Maybe when Florida experienced a summer surge, it was unlike anything we’d seen before, but now surges are happening nationwide.
That’s pretty plausible, honestly; the entire Midwest is doing pretty badly right now. The NY Times tracker of state-level cases, when sorted by cases per 100k, shows Illinois pretty far down (it having so many more absolute cases is primarily a function of population). It’s plausible that Illinois’s story is getting lost in the surges across the region.
But it’s hard not to be cynical. The national media criticized Florida, Texas, and the south all summer for a lack of mask mandates and policy interventions. So did I! Given articles like the above, it felt like it was deserved.
Now, though, we’re seeing a state that has all of those—that has been following the advice of health experts—and it’s not working.
I’m not a public health expert. I don’t know what the answer is. But I do feel like we owe the south an apology.