I was a history teacher in a former life, and mathematics and statistics have never been my strong point. But I do know one thing about comparing data: you have to compare apples to apples. Most news outlets are not doing that when it comes to comparing the impact of COVID-19.
There are a lot of numbers to crunch – positive cases, deaths, ages, zip codes, and so on. One thing people seem to be leaving out of the equation when comparing COVID cases is the population of the jurisdiction within our region. A recent article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Sept. 14, 2020) reported a rise in COVID-19 cases by comparing the actual numbers of cases and indicated that total daily cases in St. Louis City were declining, while daily cases in outlying counties, including St. Charles County were increasing. It’s not that simple.
What we should all be looking at is the percentage of the population in any jurisdiction that has been infected: cases per capita. According to 2020 estimates based on United States Census data, St. Charles County has a population of 407,056; St. Louis City, 292,782; St. Louis County, 997,539; and St. Clair County, IL, 258,325. When the Post-Dispatch article ran, 1.64 percent of the St. Charles County population had been diagnosed with COVID-19; compared to 2.19 percent in St. Louis County; 2.30 percent in St. Louis City; and 2.56 percent in St. Clair County, Illinois.
Because the number of people living in each jurisdiction isn’t the same, you aren’t comparing apples to apples if you compare number of cases across the board. St. Charles County has nearly 115,000 more residents than the City of St. Louis, and nearly 600,000 less than St. Louis County. We can also compare our percentages locally to state and national percentages. St. Charles County is doing far better than the nation as a whole, while St. Louis City and St. Louis County are higher. We are nearly identical to statewide percentages, while we are not doing as well as the more rural counties of Jefferson, Lincoln, Warren and Franklin counties.
While every death is a tragedy, our county is fairing comparatively well with this pandemic. Our Department of Public Health employees have been working non-stop to keep up with the pace of investigating, contact tracing, testing, quarantining, isolating and educating. It’s a tremendous task and I am proud of their dedication and diligence.
One of the ironies of the pandemic is that some in the media have been asking why the jurisdictions with the lowest percentage of cases – Franklin, Jefferson and St. Charles County – don’t adopt a mask mandate like the two jurisdictions – St. Louis City and St. Louis County – that have the highest. I have not questioned the need for such mandates where the cases are significantly higher than the state and national average.
My other reason for reluctance to a mask mandate is the inability to enforce it. Our health department is overworked already with contact tracing. Our police have put in over 2,000 hours of overtime dealing with protests. We do not have the manpower to send someone down to the hardware store to cite someone for not wearing a mask. Secondly, when The New York Times published a map in July showing the percentage of people wearing a mask in our region, there was little correlation with whether a mandate was in place.
Along with our Public Health Department experts, I continue to watch our data closely and continue to work hard to educate everyone on the benefits to others of wearing a mask. I appreciate and thank our residents, businesses and schools for encouraging the important, precautionary measures we have communicated: social distancing, avoiding crowds, washing hands, and wearing a mask. I continue to have faith that we will keep our numbers down if we exercise these precautions and care about each other.