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How NC COVID-19 Restrictions Stacked Up Against Its Neighbors

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Lilly Knoepp/BPR News
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Economics Professor Sean Mulholland presents at the Center for Study of Free Enterprise COVID-19 Impact and Recovery Town Hall. He's associate director of the Center for Study of Free Enterprise.

Three states box in Western North Carolina - Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina.  All three responded to the pandemic much differently than North Carolina did.  BPR reports on a study which examined which approach worked better.

COVID restrictions – even now almost 15 months later - look very different across Western North Carolina’s borders.

Sean Mulholland is a professor of Economics at Western Carolina University. He notes that Democratic North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper put more COVID restrictions in place than his Republican counterparts in neighboring states.

“It fell to governors across the country to effectively shut down most industries, particularly those that had people interacting with each other in small, confined spaces,” said Mulholland. He’s also associate director of the Center for Study of Free Enterprise.

County-By-County 

Mulholland studied the impact of these policies on unemployment, as well as hospitalizations and death rates.  During a recent town hall, he explained his study broke it down county-by-county to see which approach would have been better. He analyzed how the counties would have been impact by creating a “synthetic county” is made up of multiple counties from the neighboring states with similar demographics, industries and other factors to create a comparison.

Here’s Jackson County as an example.  

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Credit Courtesy of Mulholland/WCU
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Mulholland shared this graph of how Jackson County's unemployment compared to synthetic models of what would have happened if Georgia, Tennessee, or South Carolina policies in Jackson County.

“Within that state, you can see the Jackson County experience, a higher unemployment rate, not surprising given that we know that for a lot of industries, we were shut down longer than the other states, but did it have a return that is, did we witness a lower death rate?,” said Mulholland in the presentation which is part of the center's COVID-19 Research Initiative.  

The answer is, yes.

COVID death and hospitalization rates in Jackson County stayed far lower the rates produced by Mulholland’s models for the other state policies. 

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Credit Courtesy of Mulholland/WCU
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Mulholland shared this graph of how Jackson County's COVID-19 death rate compared to synthetic models of what would have happened with Georgia, Tennessee, or South Carolina policies in Jackson County.

By comparison, Buncombe County had a higher unemployment than the models with other state policies. Additionally, in Buncombe County, the death rate was higher with North Carolina policies than the  models of Georgia and Tennessee state policies but lower than South Carolina policies.

State-By-State

While the unemployment versus death rates differed across the 23 counties that Mulholland analyzed, overall North Carolina had a lower death rate compared to all three states but a higher unemployment rate than Georgia and South Carolina.

Mulholland believes that there could have been more variation in policies from state-to-state.  

“It’s concerning to me that we have this tapestry of states that are little experiments and, in this case, we didn’t see that,” said Mulholland.

Mulholland’s research is part of a COVID-19 Research Initative with The Center for Study of Free Enterprise. The CSFE COVID-19 Town Hall series was funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, The American Council for Education, The Center for the Study of Economic Mobility and others. 

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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