Lies, Damned Lies, and Covid-19 Statistics

One of my pet peeves is that way in which many people can’t seem to grasp the basics of statistics. Every day, I see news reports about the Covid-19 crisis in California, and some try to use these reports to argue that California’s problems prove that Covid-19 lockdowns are a waste of time, and that we would be better off emulating states like South Dakota.

Now California is going through tough times right now, but it is not because the state has more infections than other states–it’s because California’s health care system is more efficient. Large managed care organizations like Kaiser have done a great job of running lean, which is normally a good thing, but also means that the state has fewer ICU beds per capita than most states (tied for 39th, to be precise).

If we look instead at the most basic health outcome, deaths per capita from Covid-19, where do you think California comes out? Take a guess, then keep reading to hear the answer.


37th. As of today, California has suffered 935 deaths per million residents.

That’s not great–it’s about double the per capita deaths of a well-managed country like Israel, but it’s hardly the kind of disaster that California’s critics (most of whom live in states that have done far worse) make it out to be.

(By the way, South Dakota’s per capita deaths are double that of California.)

But let’s take it a step further and take a look at more detailed data.

It is a sad fact that economic inequality has exacerbated the effects of Covid-19. Relatively wealthy knowledge workers can work from home, while essential workers need to leave their homes and expose themselves to risk to make a living.

Think I’m exaggerating? Let’s compare my town, Palo Alto, with its immediate neighbor, East Palo Alto. Rather than being separated by railroad tracks, they are separated by US-101.

At the start of the year, 2,793 of East Palo Alto’s 30,499 residents had received a positive Covid-19 test. That’s over 9% of the population!

Just across the freeway, 848 of Palo Alto’s 67,019 residents have tested positive so far, or just under 1.3%

Geographically, the two cities are essentially identical. But one city is wealthy and can afford to social distance, while the other is poor and cannot.

East Palo Alto’s case rate would place it 4th in the world, between Montenegro and Czechia.

Palo Alto’s case rate would place it 98th in the world, between Namibia and Morocco, not much above Norway and Singapore, and lower than Canada and Iceland.

So to summarize:

  1. When people present Covid-19 statistics, make sure you look at them on a per capita basis, and in comparison to other reference points.
  2. When people claim that behavior has little to no impact on Covid-19 infection rates, point them to the tragic natural experiment that Palo Alto and East Palo Alto are conducting.

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