The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The two halves of the pandemic

President Donald Trump removes his mask upon returning to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Oct. 5, 2020. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

We are now as far from the inauguration of Joe Biden as the inauguration was from the day in March 2020 when the pandemic for many Americans became tangible: when actor Tom Hanks announced his infection with the coronavirus and when the NBA halted its season. In other words, the pandemic can now be divided cleanly into two halves, the first managed at the federal level by Donald Trump and the second managed by his successor.

Those two halves were not equivalent. The first half, the one that occurred during Trump’s administration, took a while to ramp up. While the country was riveted by the increasing number of cases for much of the spring, it wasn’t until late June that the country was seeing 40,000 new cases a day. In part, this was a function of limited testing; the actual number of cases was certainly far higher. Even without those untested cases, though, the first half of the pandemic saw slightly more cases than the second half. Here’s how they broke out by state.

The second half of the pandemic unfolded as the country had access to vaccines that could reduce infection and largely prevent the worst-case effects of covid-19. That, too, took a while to ramp up. The number of deaths per state looks like this:

There are some important bits of context to those numbers, though. The reduced number of deaths is a function not solely of the vaccine rollout but also of the fact that so many early cases went undetected. If the number of cases in the first half was significantly higher than measured, then it would make sense that the number of deaths would also be higher. It’s also the case that the vast majority of the deaths in the second half of the pandemic were among the unvaccinated; if the virus is still spreading broadly among those without protection, the number of deaths won’t be tamped down very much. And of course, it takes a while for coronavirus cases to progress from infection to death, so some of the cases that have been recorded will unfortunately end up in that more dire category.

How Biden and Trump actually compare on coronavirus deaths

Another important context for the graphics above is that the coloration, based on 2020 presidential vote, is misleading. There are a lot more people in Biden-voting blue states than Trump-voting red ones.

Adjusting for population allows us to see how the first and second halves of the pandemic played out on a state level. The Northeast, hit hard by the virus at the beginning of the pandemic, saw broad drops in the number of cases and deaths per capita in the second half of the pandemic. Many of the states that saw the biggest increases in per-capita deaths in the second half of the pandemic are ones that Trump won handily last year.

The correlation between the change in death toll and 2020 vote margin isn’t huge, but it exists. (The correlation between vaccination rates and 2020 vote margin is huge.)

The picture is made more clear if we categorize states and then counties specifically by 2020 vote and type. (Election data for Alaska doesn’t map onto counties, so the state is excluded from those calculations.) In the first half of the pandemic, Trump-voting states saw more cases but fewer deaths than Biden-voting ones. Then that flipped. (Florida is a swing state here, having voted for Trump by fewer than five points, and it helps drive up the per-capita values for that category.)

On a county level, the first-and-second-half divide is more stark. Trump- and Biden-voting counties saw similar case and death rates in the first half of the pandemic, but in the second half, President Biden’s half, the rate of cases was 1.4 times higher in Trump-voting counties, and the rate of deaths 1.6 times higher. This correlates to the urban-rural divide, too.

The inevitable frustration for Biden, of course, is that his handling of the second half of the pandemic is largely driven by the toll of the virus — something that is disproportionately a function of the places that didn’t vote for him. But that’s a challenge that comes with the job. And by now he’s been about as responsible for managing the pandemic as was his predecessor.