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In this Jan. 8, 2021, file photo, emergency medical technician Thomas Hoang, 29, of Emergency Ambulance Service, pushes a gurney into an emergency room to drop off a COVID-19 patient in Placentia, Calif.

Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

Only fools are certain about the pandemic’s lessons

SHARE Only fools are certain about the pandemic’s lessons

If you write a political column for a living, it often doesn’t pay to tell strangers about it. But when someone I hired recently to do some work at my home asked, I couldn’t think of a way to be vague or evasive.

What followed was an unsolicited lecture, of sorts, on what I should be writing about COVID-19 restrictions and the Biden administration. (Strangers these days rarely want to talk about local school boards or city councils, for some reason.) The administration wants to impose travel restrictions on Florida to stem a fast-moving new strain, he said. But Florida has had a low death rate because, unlike liberal states, it has stayed mostly open, while California, on the other hand, has closed down and suffered a lot of deaths.

Well … 

My new friend did well with his task in my house, but his analysis was selective and incomplete.

He’s not alone. A lot of people, including politicians at state levels, have a false sense of certainty right now, based on only some of the facts. The full picture isn’t nearly as certain. That makes lessons from the pandemic hard to interpret.

The handyman was right about one thing. If you look at recent Wallethub.com rankings of states with the fewest pandemic restrictions, California ranks dead last, at 51. Florida is fifth. In case you’re wondering, Oklahoma has the fewest restrictions of all. Utah came in just behind Florida, at No. 6.

But the correlation among restrictions, case counts and deaths isn’t so clear. Yes, California just passed 50,000 deaths, but it has a large population. The worldometers.info website, which compiles reliable COVID-19 statistics, ranks California’s per capita death rate from COVID-19 as 30th worst in the country. It scores a middling 26th for overall cases per capita.

Florida ranks 28th in both categories, leading to absolutely no clear conclusion at all.

This lack of definitive answers has been a frustration for much of the past year. We know, from science and practical experience, that mask-wearing slows the transmission of the coronavirus. Its airborne transmission makes the need for social distancing logical. Mass gatherings, whether for parties or family holiday gatherings, lead to infections. 

Beyond that, lessons for governments are unclear. For politicians looking to take credit for this or that — and which of them isn’t? — certainty is elusive.

Utah’s legislative leaders point to the state’s low death rate as an example of how they did things right by pushing the governor to be less restrictive than other states.

Again, as with my handyman, that’s only half the story.

Using the same metrics as above, Utah ranks 46th in terms of deaths per capita — an impressive feat, indeed. But it ranks a dismal fourth in total cases per capita.

The likely reason is that Utah’s population is relatively young, and COVID-19 is more deadly for older folks. If that’s true, Utah’s low death rate is mostly demographic luck. It certainly isn’t a result of keeping the number of cases down. 

And, given the many people who report lingering, debilitating after-effects, a high case rate is nothing to celebrate.

Then there is the matter of the economy. Despite the weight of a pandemic, Utah’s unemployment rate in December was 3.6%, compared with 6.7% nationwide. Throughout the pandemic, it has stayed steadily lower than the rest of the nation.

The Wall Street Journal reports that several states are trying to raise taxes this year, but Utah’s lawmakers are cutting, instead.

Again, this is impressive, but the lessons are unclear. 

Is Utah’s economy doing well because the state imposed relatively few restrictions? If so, at what cost? Washington State was among the most restrictive states (ranking 46th on the leniency list), and yet it ranks a healthy 45th in deaths per capita, just slightly above Utah. Unlike Utah, however, it also ranks low in total cases per capita (47th). 

But its unemployment rate is 7.1%, and Washington’s political leaders are proposing large tax hikes. Lenient Oklahoma’s unemployment rate is 5.3%. In restrictive Virginia it’s 4.7%.

The answer to all this, of course, is that several factors are at play, from demographics to political philosophies to the types of industries each state relies on, and myriad other things. 

Once the pandemic ends, it will take a long time to sort everything out accurately, if that ever happens.

In the meantime, despite what handymen, politicians and, yes, columnists try to say, certainty is a fool’s catchphrase, and the lessons for future generations will have to wait.