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Is CT’s Coronavirus Recovery The Nation’s Best?

Is CT’s Coronavirus Recovery The Nation’s Best?

Middletown Press, June 25, 2020

By Dan Haar

Every day we hear reports about the latest state with a passel of new coronavirus cases, or deaths, or people in hospitals. Florida. Texas. Arizona. California.

And every day we see new numbers from Northeast states, and a few others, that show smaller infection rates, fewer deaths and hospital wards emptying of COVID-19 patients.

How do we make sense of the states by comparison? Which state is recovering the fastest and best?

Connecticut might be the top coronavirus reducer among all 50 states, or it could be New York. I looked at a bunch of data from the best performing states and those are clearly the top two.

It’s no coincidence that New York was the hardest hit state by far in March and April, and Connecticut followed close behind. They would naturally be among the states recovering soonest. But even as the crisis continues, some early-hit states are doing better than others.

Ultimately we’re all in this together of course, because we’re talking about human lives here, not sport; because we travel freely for work and pleasure, at least in good times; and because we’re one nation, for now, though you can’t tell that from a political culture that most definitely extends to coronavirus recovery.  

“We should feel good about where we are as a state with what’s happening over the last 60 days,” Gov. Ned Lamont said, closing Monday’s news briefing. “Don’t take it for granted, but thanks for everything you’re doing.”

It’s about distancing and testing and other actions, we know. Josh Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer, who looks at a lot of data, said there is the opposite of competition between states, as they work together constantly.  

“We want each other to succeed in beating back COVID,” he said. “We root for our neighboring states harder.”

Still, measuring success and failure in this crisis — with numbers — leads the way toward intelligent choices and so it’s worth examining closely.

The number of cases and deaths form the headline metric because, well, it’s the tally of people sick and dying with the disease, and that matters most. But deaths depend on factors such as how well nursing homes have fared, as I wrote last week. And states define COVID-related deaths differently.

And the number of overall cases is as much about how many tests happen in a state as it is about how the disease is spreading. For example, New York tested 9.3 percent of its entire population in the last month alone, while Colorado and Pennsylvania tested at about one-quarter that rate; Connecticut hit 5.6 percent, not bad, but not where the state had hoped to land.

So we look a level deeper, at three crucial measures.

The first is percent of tests that come up positive. I picked the last month, from May 20 to June 20, to line up with Connecticut’s reopening. Also, hey, it’s a full month.

The second is decline of hospitalizations, where Connecticut has excelled since hitting a peak of 1,972 people in hospitals with COVID-19 on April 22. Data in many states is scarce or unreliable — as we’ve reported — so I went with this: The number of people in hospitals on June 20 as a percentage of the cumulative total of all COVID-19 patients treated in hospitals in each state.

The third is transmission rate per person, also known as R-naught, or Rt, with a tiny little t like we had in chemistry and physics classes. That’s the measure of how many people each person with COVID-19 infects. More than one means the disease is spreading, perhaps fast. Fewer than one means it’s declining in number.

Thanks to my colleague Jordan Fenster for tracking down and explaining that R-naught metric, which is so complex that the creators — the co-founders of Instagram — say on their Q&A that they have no space to explain it. But it’s critically important.

Think of movie recommendations. If you don’t persuade at least one person to go see it, it ain’t lasting in theaters, you can forget about Golden Globe and it has no hope for even a nomination for an Oscar.

For positive test percentages and hospital reductions, I only looked at the nine states whose number of new cases in the last month was less than 25 percent of their total cases through the crisis.

For example, New Mexico is on the green list in the map of green, yellow and red states that Lamont and Geballe showed on Monday, to indicate hot spots, caution zones and safer places. That desert state had some solid numbers, including a better performance than Connecticut in percent of tests coming up negative over the last month. But 39 percent of its cases appeared between May 20 and June 20, so it didn’t make the cut of improving states. 

You be the judge back to top

Here’s the way New York and Connecticut finished on each measure. You be the judge as to who’s No. 1.

New York comes in at No. 1 on percent of tests positive in the last month — 1.8 percent — with Connecticut a respectable No. 5, at 3.3 percent. All the improving states have tightened their numbers over the last week or so, with Connecticut now well under 2 percent.

On hospitalization declines, New York is No. 1, with the 1,142 Empire State residents hospitalized with COVID-19 on June 20 — just 1.3 percent of the total. Connecticut is a very close No. 2 at 1.5 percent, down to 149 out of 10,099 who have been hospitalized. And no other state among those showing improvement is anywhere close.

By another measure of hospitalization declines — percent decrease during June — Connecticut came out at No. 1, edging out New York, 71 percent to 67 percent, with most other states far behind. A hat tip for that metric to my former colleague Matthew Kauffman, now managing a data reporting project for the Solutions Journalism Network.

In some ways, hospitalization declines in late May and June only tell us how bad off we were in April. But then again, Massachusetts has had 11,085 people treated in hospitals, not much more than we had, and they still had 927 COVID inpatients on June 20.

Massachusetts leads the pack at 0.69 in R-naught, the transmission rate metric. Connecticut follows at No. 2, 0.72, several ticks ahead of No. 3 New Jersey and Illinois — the states that share our love for unfunded pension and health liabilities, as it happens.

New York weighs in tied for No. 9, at 0.83 percent, which is still under the magic number of 1.0.

In all, 28 states were over that 1.0 threshold this week. The worst was Hawaii at 1.57. Oklahoma, where President Donald Trump held a rally over the weekend without much social distancing, stood at 1.47 — the bottom tier.

No state is anywhere close to the values between 2 and 3 that many had in mid-March, and few states have bounded upward. That’s a good sign going forward.

In one form or another, these measures are pretty much what the epidemiologists, public health officials and tracking websites use. The downside is that states’ methods vary — even in deaths, for example, as some do and some don’t count suspected but not confirmed COVID fatalities.

On top of that, unlike in, say, sports, where we have seasons and generally accepted metrics, coronavirus has brought infinite ways of measuring with its newness. By month? By percent gain or absolute value? By peak within each state?

And as Lamont said Tuesday, when we talk about states doing badly or well, it’s really metropolitan areas or even parts of giant cities — a spike in Austin, Texas; healing in Queens, N.Y.

So we lurch forward with a data system within states and among states that’s sorely lacking. That’s not the highest priority right now but it does matter, and it can help if we could see it all clearly. The obvious example is when we ask whether we can head out for live music in bars (not indoors yet) and send our kids back to school in the fall (we’ll find out this week).

If it’s comforting to know that Connecticut is the No. 1 or No. 2 state for recovery, Geballe won’t make that claim and he won’t do a touchdown dance. Wisely for now, he and his boss live by the old sports adage when you’re ahead — make yourself believe you’re down by 2.

“Because of the sacrifices of so many people in Connecticut, we’ve gotten COVID under control and we are clearly well positioned relative to many other parts of the country,” Geballe said. “That said, it’s incredibly important as the governor reminds of every day that we not let our guard down. We’ve seen in other parts of the world and other parts of the country that COVID can come roaring back.”