TN vs. KY: The coronavirus edition

A new poll shows that Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear is America’s top-rated governor when it comes to his response to the coronavirus crisis, with 86% rating the job he’s doing as “good” or “excellent,” versus the only 5% who say it’s been “poor” or “very poor.”

Beshear, who had taken office just months before coronavirus infections arrived in the Bluegrass, has been treated like a godsend by Kentuckians, and has garnered national attention for the way he’s handled the virus outbreak. His calm demeanor at his daily press briefings earned him praise early on, and his early actions to limit the spread of the disease have been credited for Kentucky’s relatively low number of infections.

Bordering Kentucky to the south is Tennessee, which has a relatively high number of infections. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has garnered criticism for being slower to act. Beshear created a bit of a storm Friday before last, when he urged Kentuckians living along the border not to travel into Tennessee, saying that the Volunteer State isn’t doing enough to protect its citizens from coronavirus.

Beshear didn’t mention Lee by name, but the shots he was taking were clearly aimed in Lee’s direction. Days later, Beshear implemented a ban on Kentuckians traveling outside the state for most reasons. The ban did not apply specifically to Tennessee, but, again, the intent was clear.

Kentuckians don’t want to hear criticism about their governor. They become incensed when criticism is offered. But criticism is due him. Beshear is an opportunist who is using this crisis to further his political ambitions. When he fired shots at Lee, he specifically mentioned Kentuckians going into Tennessee to eat at restaurants and do other things they couldn’t do in Kentucky. But, in fact, restaurants in Tennessee had been closed for almost a week by that point — same as in Kentucky. Churches had been closed in Tennessee for a week by that point — same as in Kentucky.

Likewise, Beshear’s travel ban was one of the most pointless executive actions that have been taken by any state amid this crisis. The governor’s executive order stated that if Kentuckians were traveling outside the state for business, groceries, a doctor’s appointment or to care for a family member, that was acceptable. Otherwise, they would have to self-quarantine for 14 days upon their return to Kentucky. Not only is that order completely unenforceable, but apparently Beshear believes you can’t pick up coronavirus at Walmart if you travel into Tennessee for groceries. The governor’s order wasn’t so much an act to protect Kentuckians as a way to generate additional headlines and to punish Kentuckians who travel to states like Tennessee.

For his part, Lee seemed to fire back at Beshear a few days later when he pointed out that Tennessee had more coronavirus cases because it had tested more people per capita than other states. And, he’s right. I’m not necessarily defending Lee’s actions. His leadership hasn’t been firm enough. He’s tried to perform a balancing act between appeasing those who are constantly calling on him to do more, and avoiding measures that anger conservatives who are concerned about their civil liberties. The result has been a series of executive orders that seem to contradict each other and don’t really accomplish much.

But my argument is that Tennessee is no worse than Kentucky when it comes to the coronavirus outbreak. I made that argument the day after Beshear’s original comments on the subject, and I’ll make it again now. The basis for the argument is very simple: If Kentucky were testing the same number of people as Tennessee, there would be a comparable number of coronavirus cases in Kentucky.

As of Saturday, there were 3,321 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Tennessee, and 917 in Kentucky.

But Tennessee had tested 41,391 people for the virus; Kentucky had tested only 16,663. Statistically, Kentucky’s number of tests performed has taken a big jump in recent days. We’ll take that number at face-value, however.

First of all, keep in mind that Tennessee’s population is 6.8 million. Kentucky’s population is 4.5 million.

With that in mind, Tennessee’s infection rate — based on positive tests — is 49 per 100,000 people. Kentucky’s infection rate is 20 per 100,000 people.

However, Tennessee has tested 609 people per 100,000, while Kentucky has only tested 370 people per 100,000.

Tennessee has performed almost double the tests per capita that Kentucky has performed. Just a few days ago, that number was 3-to-1. Whether Kentucky has closed the gap that quickly is debatable, but let’s assume they have. Tennessee’s infection rate is a little more than double Kentucky’s infection rate; Tennessee’s testing rate is a little less than double Kentucky’s testing rate.

The number of Tennessee’s tests that are returning positive is 8.0%. The number of Kentucky’s tests that are returning positive is 5.5%. Again, these numbers were almost identical before Kentucky’s sudden, and questionable, surge in reported test numbers. But they’re not substantially different, even now.

The biggest statistic, though, is the number of coronavirus-related deaths in each state. As of Saturday, there had been 43 in Tennessee, and 40 in Kentucky.

Based on that, the death rate in Tennessee is 1.3%, while the death rate in Kentucky is 4.4%.

If that’s true, Kentucky has one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the United States.

Why are Kentuckians dying of coronavirus at a much higher rate than Tennesseans? Is the health care system that much worse in Kentucky? Are Kentuckians more prone to serious COVID-19 illness due to underlying health problems?

The answer, of course, is that Kentuckians aren’t dying at a higher rate than Tennessee. They’re just not being tested. The demographics of Tennessee and Kentucky are too similar. It’s unreasonable to think that the death rate in Kentucky is truly almost three times as high as the death rate in Tennessee.

We can stop the argument about how much better Kentucky has handled the coronavirus than Tennessee, and we can stop the ridiculously silly argument about how Democrat governors are handling this better than Republican governors. If Kentucky were testing at the same rate as Tennessee, they’d find similar levels of coronavirus in their state. There just isn’t much of an argument to be made against that.

Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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