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Do political leanings play part in COVID outcomes? Professor questions Utah study

Medical staff treat a patient at Utah Valley Hospital's COVID-19 intensive care unit on Aug. 25 in Provo. Like nearly every aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic, politics have also creeped into its research, as a BYU professor disputes a Utah State University study that found more conservative-leaning counties have faced worse outcomes.

Medical staff treat a patient at Utah Valley Hospital's COVID-19 intensive care unit on Aug. 25 in Provo. Like nearly every aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic, politics have also creeped into its research, as a BYU professor disputes a Utah State University study that found more conservative-leaning counties have faced worse outcomes. (Intermountain Healthcare)



Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Like nearly every aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic, politics have also creeped into its research.

A recent Utah State University study reported by KSL.com showed that a county's political leaning has a large impact on its number of COVID-19 cases and resulting deaths.

The peer-reviewed USU study published in Rural Sociology noted that although large cities faced the highest rates of disease transmission and deaths at the onset of the pandemic, by March 2021 nonmetropolitan areas began seeing higher rates.

According to researchers with USU's Western Rural Development Center, early politicization of public health measures influenced adherence to health guidelines — and whether local governments would put health orders in place.

Don Albrecht, executive director at the Western Rural Development Center, and his team wrote in the research article that they conducted science-based research and combined it with the information they gathered from reaching out to rural communities, local families and decision-makers.

But a Brigham Young University professor is sharing his concerns with the article and the study itself.

In a rebuttal to the USU research, Porter Jenkins, BYU assistant computer science professor, pointed to his own findings that state aggregated data shows no correlation between political leanings and outcomes of the coronavirus.

The USU researchers analyzed not state but county data from two dates, on May 1, 2020 — "a day chosen to represent the early portion of the pandemic" — and 10 months later on March 1, 2021, the study states.

Based on the number of cases and deaths occurred up to those two days, the USU study found that rural, Donald Trump-supporting areas had higher death rates, and that the best predictor of COVID-19 deaths is low levels of education, high poverty rates and a large number of marginalized groups.

Jenkins, whose personal website describes him as an artificial intelligence researcher, contends the state data is a "less noisy" gauge of outcomes. But Albrecht defends the research method, calling county data "much more precise."

"Instead of 50 data points, I have 3,112 data points. In every state there are some counties that are more Republican leaning than other counties. What our data reveals is that as the percent of people in a county that vote for Trump increase, per capita COVID-19 cases also increase. It is also important to consider disadvantage. Death rates are higher in counties with higher poverty rates, lower education levels and higher proportions of minority residents," Albrecht told KSL.com.

Jenkins also takes issue with the study analyzing data from just two dates during the pandemic, calling it "cherry-picking."

In statistics and science, Jenkins said, researchers should look at data over a larger time frame. He compared the two points of data to only going on one date with someone, which doesn't provide enough time to get to know them.

But Albrecht emphasized the data was the cumulative cases and deaths that had occured up to those two dates.

Jenkins said he tried to reproduce the USU researchers' models using the same data — but with data from every day in the date range instead of those two days — and was unable to reproduce the same results.

He chose to speak out about his concerns due to confusion he's observed during the pandemic among his friends and family members.

"I have a lot of friends and family who have been very confused in the last 18 months throughout the pandemic because I feel there has been a lot of coverage both from the media, and even from academics, like Albrecht, that has created confusion," Jenkins said.

He said he's not concerned with political parties but "just about the truth."

When asked to respond to Jenkins' claims, Albrecht pointed to a New York Times article published Monday that "shows strong support (at the state level) to what my data revealed at the county level — where there are more Trump voters, COVID-19 is more severe."

"Really, this just makes logical sense," Albrecht said.

He said his team chose March 1, 2021, as one of its data points, "because vaccinations were just starting to have an impact."

The academic review process takes several months and so the article was not published until August, Albrecht said. "We are currently doing a follow-up article where we use COVID-19 cases and deaths on Sept. 1, 2021, and also consider percent of residents in each county that are vaccinated."

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