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Five counties tell next phase of coronavirus story

Data Download is checking in with the five communities in our County-to-County project, places we are watching the 2020 campaign unfold.

WASHINGTON — Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, much attention has been paid to the national figures – whether the nation is “bending the curve.” But the numbers around COVID-19 increasingly make it clear that there isn’t a single national story with the virus. Numbers are down in some places and up in others.

With those differences in mind, this week the Data Download is checking in with the five communities in our County-to-County project, places we are watching the 2020 campaign unfold: Beaver County Pennsylvania, Kent County Michigan, Miami-Dade Florida, Milwaukee Wisconsin and Maricopa in Arizona.

All are critical to this fall’s presidential election and they are living in different realities on the coronavirus.

Start with Beaver County, a blue-collar community in suburban Pittsburgh.

So far, the numbers in the county aren’t terrible compared to other places. Through Friday there have been 337 total confirmed cases in the county, averaging out to about 205 cases per 100,000 people, and 47 deaths. And the new case track in the county has been fairly flat for most of the last month, with small bumps up and down.

The one huge exception to that rule in the county was mid-April where a spike in cases in nursing homes produced a massive jump in the county overall. In Beaver, in particular, the nursing home element is a dominant part of COVID story and it likely will be this fall. And aging blue-collar suburban counties like it share that large number of nursing homes.

In Kent County, which is home to a large share of establishment Republicans and the city of Grand Rapids, the last week has been a bit troubling.

Overall, the county has seen 906 confirmed cases, which works out to 139 per 100,000 people, and 29 deaths. The numbers are not terrible considering the urban/suburban nature of the area, but the last week saw five days with the highest new-case counts since the outbreak began, suggesting a spike may be emerging.

Adding to the pain, the unemployment rate there has jumped from about 2.4 percent in February to 16 percent in April in a place that is used to thriving economically, like other Republican-leaning suburbs. That could have a huge big impact this November.

Of the five locales in the County-to-County mix, Miami-Dade has taken the biggest hits so far.

The county not only has seen the largest number of cases, 10,926, and the largest number of deaths, 287, it also currently has the highest rate of infection, with more than 396 out of every 100,000 people confirmed to have the virus.

The county’s new-case numbers have been jagged in the last month, bouncing up and down, but overall the figures have been declining since a high of 684 back on April 2nd.

The pattern is similar in Milwaukee, where the highest new case number came back on April 4th.

Since then there have been a lot of small ups and downs, but overall trend seems to be a decline. The county has seen roughly 2,400 confirmed cases since the outbreak began, with 154 deaths. Milwaukee County currently has 256 confirmed cases per 100,000 people.

But the real story in Milwaukee is about the racial disparities, with the disease hitting African Americans there much harder than it’s hitting other demographic groups. The Data Download tackled this topic recently. It’s reasonable to expect that disparity to a be big part of the COVID-19 political conversation this fall in Milwaukee and other big cities like it with large black populations.

So far, Maricopa County in Arizona has arguably seen the smallest impact from the virus.

The county is a massive jurisdiction with more than 4.4 million people, but so far it has seen only about 3,100 cases, for a rate of only 71 confirmed cases per 100,000 people. There have been 120 deaths, far fewer than Milwaukee and Miami-Dade

Some of that probably has to do with the sprawling nature of Maricopa. It holds about 9,200 square miles of land – far bigger than Rhode Island and Connecticut combined. All evidence suggests population density and heavily-used mass transit systems help in the transmission of the virus. Those two features are not a big part of Maricopa.

That may mean that the politics of COVID-19 are more subdued in suburban Phoenix this fall than they are in Milwaukee or Beaver County Pennsylvania.

But like everything with the Coronavirus, these numbers need a “for now” after them. They are all snapshots in time and the last few days and weeks suggest the stories out of these places could change, possibly dramatically.

Some states and communities are on the verge of “reopening” their economies, others appear to weeks or more away. And the easing of restrictions in some places but not others may be setting the stage the emergence of hotspots. We don’t yet know where those will be, if they appear.

It seems clear that some aspects of the pandemic, like the nursing homes in Beaver and the racial differences in Milwaukee, are likely to play a large role in politics this fall. But the different stories of COVID-19 in the County-to-County communities, and the country at large, are still very much being written.