Measuring Vaccination and Case Rates By State Isn’t All That Precise or Revealing


A commuter receives a COVID-19 vaccination at Grand Central Station Terminal train station in New York City, May 12, 2021. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

As mentioned in today’s Morning Jolt, President Biden began yesterday’s announcement by pointing to New Castle County in Delaware and Lehigh County in Pennsylvania and calling them places where, “you wouldn’t have to take one of these off, you don’t have to put one on — because people got vaccinated.” As I noted, New Castle County is right around the national average for vaccination rates, and Lehigh County is a little better.

The CDC wants you to wear a mask if the number of cases in your area is high or substantial, which comes out to 50 per 100,000 residents or more. New Castle is currently at 38.3 cases per 100,000 residents, and Lehigh County is at 33.5 cases per 100,000 residents. That’s puts them in the “yellow” category, with 10 to 50 cases per 100,000, like much of the rest of the mid-Atlantic.

But you might be surprised to know that particular corners of states with much worse overall numbers, like Walker County, Texas, Custer County, Okla, Beford County, Tenn. are in that same “yellow” category — at least for now.

Biden clearly has a sense in his head of places that are doing well in vaccination rates and which ones aren’t, and his sense may or may not line up with the actual data. I think news coverage that focuses on vaccination rates by state leads people to the all-too-simple narrative that people in the blue or Democratic-leaning states are getting vaccinated, and the red or Republican-leaning states aren’t. But there’s a lot of variation within the states! Morris County, New Jersey, has 64 percent of all residents fully vaccinated – this includes residents of all ages, including those under 12 who can’t get vaccinated yet. But Cumberland County has just 36 percent fully vaccinated.

Keep in mind, the case rates might tell a different story. By this measurement, Cumberland County doesn’t look so bad, with just 7.36 cases per 100,000 residents, while Morris County is at 47.1 cases per 100,000 residents — knocking on the door of the threshold for the CDC masking recommendation.

Sparsely-populated Hamilton County in New York has 75 percent of all residents fully vaccinated! But Allegheny County is down at 34 percent fully vaccinated.

You could look at New Mexico, ranking ninth in the country with 69.2 percent of residents fully vaccinated, and see it as a success story. But that might be cold comfort to Catron County in New Mexico, with 27 percent of residents fully vaccinated.

The state of Wyoming currently ranks third from the bottom, with just 46 percent of residents fully vaccinated. But don’t blame Teton County, they’ve already got 73 percent of their residents fully vaccinated.

The real danger is that people walk around with an inaccurate sense of how prevalent COVID-19 is in their area — either being unconcerned because they think their state is one of the good ones, and don’t realize their county isn’t all that vaccinated or has a high case load, or being too worried, because they don’t realize they’re in a highly-vaccinated and low-case corner of a not-so-vaccinated and high-case state.

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