MIKE WALDEN COLUMN: How well has North Carolina dealt with COVID-19?

Published 9:34 am Friday, April 22, 2022

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Even though COVID-19 continues with its variants, medical experts are hopeful the virus is becoming less deadly and disrupting. In other words, we are learning to live with it.

Mike Walden

As a result, it should not be surprising, there is an increasing number of studies being released about how we coped with COVID-19, and what we can learn if we confront another pandemic. One way to accomplish this is to compare the outcomes of states during COVID-19 on a number of important measures.

One recent study was authored by three economists and released by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). The NBER is not a national agency. It is a non-partisan, non-profit research organization founded in 1920. It is one of the most prestigious economic “think-tanks” in the country. Hence, when the NBER releases a study, I pay attention.

Although there were many policies, programs and funding that came from the federal government to address the pandemic, our federal system allowed the 50 states and Washington, D.C. to customize some of their own policies, including masking, shutdowns, the operation of schools and the availability of vaccines. Therefore, there were 51 (50 states plus Washington, D.C.) different localities for the authors to compare for their outcomes in dealing with COVID-19.

The authors focused on three categories of results: the economy, education and deaths. For the economy, the authors used two measures: the total months of unemployment per worker in the state from April 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic through the end of 2021, and the depth of the recession caused by the pandemic.

The pandemic’s impact on education was measured by the percentage of public education in each state that took place in-person at schools rather than remotely. This measure was used because many experts and parents have argued that remote learning for children during COVID-19 was not as beneficial for students’ educational outcomes as in-person learning.

For deaths, the death rate per capita during the previous two COVID-19 years was used, but only after adjusting the numbers for age and for health factors, such as the prevalence of diabetes and obesity in the state.

So, what did the study find, particularly for North Carolina? On the two economic measures, North Carolina ranked 17th on the unemployment measure and 19th for the depth of the COVID-19 recession, where a higher ranking means a better performance. Translated, the results mean that among the 51 states plus Washington, D.C., North Carolina had the 17th lowest total number of unemployment months per worker and the 19th mildest COVID-19 recession. Montana had the best performance on unemployment and South Dakota had the least severe recession. At the other end of the spectrum, New Jersey had the worst performance on unemployment and Connecticut had the deepest recession.

North Carolina’s ranking on in-person teaching of students was not as impressive. The state ranked 34th, meaning 33 other states had a higher percentage of students receiving in-person instruction during the pandemic. Wyoming had the highest percentage of in-person instruction, whereas Washington, D.C. had the lowest percentage.

North Carolina’s best ranking was on age and medical-adjusted COVID-19-related deaths per capita, where the state ranked 7th, meaning only six states had lower adjusted COVID-19 deaths per capita. The best performing state on deaths was Hawaii, while the worst performing state was Arizona.

The authors also combined the individual rankings for each measure into a single overall ranking. North Carolina’s overall ranking was 13th, meaning the state had the 13th best performance during the pandemic among the 50 states and Washington, D.C. using all the metrics developed by the authors. Utah ranked first on the combined ranking, and New Jersey came in last.

With 51 localities, North Carolina’s placement of number 13 puts the state in the top 25 percent. Among North Carolina’s immediate neighbors, only South Carolina placed higher at number 12. Georgia ranked 19th, Tennessee was at the 24th position and Virginia placed 36th.

As the economy moves forward, rankings of how states performed during the pandemic may become very important. The rankings could become a major factor in the location decisions of both businesses and households. It will take years – possibly even decades – for the memories of the COVID-19 pandemic to recede. Households and businesses will be motivated to locate in states that coped well during the pandemic compared to other states. The study published by the NBER strongly suggests North Carolina is in the “coping-well” category.

Economists agree the future economy will go through major changes in what businesses do, how people work, and how and where people live. Being in a state that has navigated the pandemic better than most other states should give that state an advantage in dealing with these changes. Is North Carolina such a state? You decide.

Dr. Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor Emeritus at North Carolina State University.