[Co-author of this article is Eric Tyberg, a retired IT executive and consultant residing in Lincoln, California. Originally from Falun, Wisconsin, he rose through the ranks at IBM and formed his own consulting business when IBM downsized.]
Per the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus resource site, on April 1st Skagit County reported a cumulative total of 128 COVID-19 cases and Whatcom County reported 139. Between April 1st and June 1st, the cumulative number of total cases in Skagit County increased 304 percent ((389/128)*100) while in Whatcom County it increased 286 percent ((398/139)*100). Whatcom County has about 1.74 times more people (225,300) than Skagit (129,200), so it is not surprising that it has more cases, but as of April 1st, the number of cumulative total cases per 100,000 people in Skagit was 99.1, while in Whatcom it was considerably lower, 61.7. By June 1st, Skagit’s rate was 301.8 while Whatcom’s was only 176.7.
Testing rates, compromised health factors, the number of assisted care centers, and the presence of food processing plants affect the number of COVID-19 cases reported, but given that Skagit and Whatcom are roughly similar in these terms, what accounts for the higher rate in Skagit County? Four demographic factors worth examining as plausible ways to answer this question are: population density, age, race/ethnicity, and gender. If everything else is equal, the following assumptions should be true: (1) an area with high population density will have more cases than one with lower population density; (2) an “older” population will have more cases than a “younger” population; (3) a population with a higher proportion of minorities will have more cases than one with a lower proportion of minorities; and (4) a population with more men will have a higher rate than a population with fewer men.
Starting with population density, there are approximately 67 people per square mile in Skagit County and 90 per square mile in Whatcom. This factor suggests that we should see a higher rate of cases in Whatcom. In Skagit County, 2.47 percent of the population is aged 85 and over, while in Whatcom it is 2.11 percent. This indicates that we should see a higher rate in Skagit County, as we do. In terms of race/ethnicity, 72.62 percent of the population of Skagit County is White/non-Hispanic, while in Whatcom it is 78.69 percent. This difference also indicates that we should see a higher rate in Skagit County. In terms of gender, the proportions are virtually the same; in Skagit County 49.67 percent of the population is male, while in Whatcom it is 49.76 percent.
So, in terms of these four demographic factors there are two, age and race/ethnicity, that are consistent with the higher case rate in Skagit County, one (density) is not, and the counties are virtually even on the fourth, gender. Looking more closely at the age and race/ethnicity factors, we see that Skagit is not substantially different from Whatcom: less than a percent difference in the age index, and only about a six percent difference in terms of race/ethnicity. These do not seem sufficient to be driving the difference in rates we see between the two counties as of April 1st, and the much larger difference as of June 1st, with Skagit going from about 1.6 times more case rates as of April 1st to 1.71 by June 1st.
One additional difference between the two counties is the presence of Western Washington University in Whatcom County, which closed for spring quarter causing many students to return home. However, even if 10,000 students left Whatcom County, the remaining population is about 215,000, which yields case rates that are still lower in Whatcom on both dates, 64.7 and 185.7, respectively.
Could the difference be related to politics? Research suggests “…that Republicans are about three times more likely than Democrats to say their state is moving too slowly to reopen business and ease restrictions and Democrats are more likely than Republicans to report taking preventative measures like wearing masks in public.”
Given the assumptions and facts so far, it may be the case that as a Republican-leaning county, Skagit has views about containment measures that are more like the views in Franklin and Benton counties and less like the views generally held in more strongly Democrat-leaning Whatcom County. Unlike the Franklin County Commission and sheriff, both of whom attempted to defy containment orders issued by Governor Inslee, Skagit County officials did not attempt to defy the governor, but like Benton and Franklin counties, it has more of a Republican political orientation than does Whatcom, per the table to the left.
Although Hillary Clinton carried Skagit County in 2016, only 48 percent of its votes were for her, while in Whatcom County, 55 percent of its votes were for Clinton. Could the politicization of the pandemic be playing a role here? If so, “re-opening” areas may be putting Republican-leaning counties at greater risk than Democrat-leaning counties.
As an initial means of answering this question, we assembled 2016 presidential voting data by county along with the increase in cases since April 1st to three dates: May 1st, June 1st, and June 10th. We then summarized the results for Washington’s 39 counties as shown in the table to the right. As you can see, the increase in cases since April 1st is not only far higher for the 27 counties that voted for Trump (rose-colored background), but the gap is widening. Between April 1st and May 1st, the overall increase in the 27 Trump-voting counties was 431%, by June 1st it was 987%, and as of June 10th it was 1,228%; For the 12 Clinton-voting counties (blue-colored background), the respective increases are far lower, 209%, 270%, and 282%. Consistent with the research cited earlier these findings suggest: (1) that Republican-leaning counties in Washington were likely less observant about social distancing and other containment guidelines than Democrat-leaning counties; and (2) that these politically-related behaviors are becoming exacerbated as the re-opening process unfolds in Washington.
These results are sufficiently suggestive that we plan to do a more in-depth analysis of all 39 counties; similar to the analysis we have done here for Skagit and Whatcom counties, especially in terms of the increase in cases from April 1st as we move into the upcoming phases of re-opening.
The COVID-19 data are from The Coronavirus Resource Center maintained by Johns Hopkins University.
The demographic data are for 2019 and taken from Small Area Demographic Estimates (SADE) by Age, Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin.
Voting data are taken from Wikipedia.