GUEST COLUMN: States’ COVID responses are all over the map  

John Schaaf

As the U.S. marks one year of the COVID pandemic, Kentucky and the other 49 states have experienced relentless arguments about the best way to deal with the virus: “Implement no restrictions and let people decide for themselves” v. “Implement restrictions to help people protect themselves and others.”

The result of these competing positions is a national landscape of confusion, as each state developed its own approach and had different levels of success. Some states have a lower rate of COVID deaths or a lower rise in unemployment rates, but few states succeed in both.

According to year-long measurements, Kentucky was more successful than its seven surrounding states in keeping its rate of COVID deaths lower while also holding down its unemployment rate increase.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, about 5,000 Kentuckians have died from the virus, or 111 people per 100,000 population, according to tracking information compiled by The New York Times from state and local health officials.

From pre-pandemic December 2019 to high-pandemic December 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says Kentucky’s unemployment rate rose from 4.3 percent to six percent, up 1.7 percent.

By contrast, while Indiana’s unemployment increase was .6 percent lower than Kentucky’s, the Hoosier State’s death rate in the pandemic is 189 per 100,000. If Kentucky had Indiana’s death rate, our state would have lost about 3,510 more lives to COVID.

Likewise, unemployment in Ohio (+1.4 percent) and West Virginia (+1.2 percent) increased less than in Kentucky, but COVID deaths in Ohio have occurred at 150 per 100,000 and in West Virginia at 130 per 100,000, both considerably higher than in Kentucky. At Ohio’s rate, 1,755 more Kentuckians would be dead.

Three of our surrounding states have fared worse by both the death and unemployment measures. Illinois ranks close to Indiana in deaths at 182 per 100,000 population, and the state’s unemployment increase (3.9 percent) is more than twice Kentucky’s increase in the same year.

Likewise, Tennessee’s COVID death rate is 168 per 100,000 and unemployment increased 3.1 percent since the pandemic started. Missouri’s death rate is 140 per 100,000, while the state’s unemployment rate increased by 2.4 percent, so both states’ numbers are significantly worse than Kentucky’s.

Virginia is the only one of our neighboring states with both numbers close to Kentucky’s levels. With a death rate that’s a bit higher than Kentucky’s (112 per 100,000), Virginia has experienced a 2.2 percent increase in unemployment, one-half percent more than Kentucky.

However, the website WalletHub ranks Virginia as the state with the most COVID restrictions of any state in the U.S., while Kentucky has achieved better results while ranking in the middle of the pack (23rd) for restrictions relating to business operations, mask-wearing, and school openings.

Oregon and Louisiana are the two U.S. states closest in population size to Kentucky, and our state fares better than those on three of the four measures. Oregon has one of the lowest death rates in the nation at 55 deaths per 100,000 population, but its unemployment rate has gone up by three percent during the pandemic.

Louisiana has an extremely high death rate of 210 per 100,000, and its unemployment rate has risen by two percent. Almost 4,500 more Kentuckians would be dead if our COVID death rate was as bad as Louisiana’s.

There are variables in each state that can affect death rates and unemployment rates but assessing those numbers across this region of the U.S., it’s clear Kentucky has done an admirable job of navigating the pandemic.

Compared with other states, Kentucky has kept its COVID death rate to a lower level while avoiding the crushing number of job losses that have hit many states.

John Schaaf is an attorney who can be reached at

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