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Voting In The 2020 Primaries Didn’t Worsen The COVID-19 Pandemic

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We’re less than three weeks away from Election Day, and although we’ve already seen an enormous uptick in the number of absentee ballots requestedmore than a third of Americans plan to vote by mail because of the coronavirus — many people will still cast their votes in person. This means that people will assemble at polling places, as they did in the primaries held earlier this year and as they’re doing in states that have started early voting. This, of course, raises a difficult question: Could the simple act of voting worsen a public health disaster?

We have spent seven months now living under the threat of the novel coronavirus. And unfortunately, given the increasingly politicized way in which COVID-19 has been handled, voting during the pandemic has itself become a partisan issue. Distrust in science is high, even though now is when such trust is most needed, and we find ourselves in a situation where the discussion around potential effects of the election on the pandemic is transpiring in the absence of a comprehensive assessment of the risks.

Earlier this year, we undertook an analysis of in-person voting in the primaries to better understand the risks of voting in the general election.1 Of course, a comparison between primaries and the general election is imperfect, but our analysis does offer us a window into the impact voting could have on the spread of COVID-19. And what we found should offer some comfort to those who plan to vote in person: We saw no increase in overall COVID-19 mortality due to in-person voting in the primaries.

Modeling the spread of COVID-19 is very challenging. First, the underlying data is of uneven quality. The U.S. has struggled to test enough people since the very beginning of the outbreak; particularly in the early days, there were simply not enough tests to track the number of cases. That’s why our analysis used mortality data collected by The New York Times, instead of the number of reported positive test results, since mortality data remains the most reliable measure for assessing the status of the epidemic.

Second, to better capture the dynamics of the epidemic, we used two different techniques from statistical and epidemiological modeling. (The current preprint of our paper, along with data and code, is available here.)

We should note that our analysis is what statisticians call “ecological.” We examined whether primary elections affected the course of the pandemic in a county, not whether, at the individual level, going to the polls affects an individual’s risk of contracting the infection.

Our first approach relies on a technique called “matching.” In an ideal world (at least from a statistician’s point of view), we would be able to explore a counterfactual — “What if this state had not held its primary during a pandemic?” — and then compare the number of COVID-19 deaths under each scenario.

Of course, we only have access to the world as it actually unfolds. So, we approximate this alternate world by using “matches,” defined for our purposes as counties that did not hold a primary but otherwise have similar characteristics relevant to the incidence of COVID-19 (e.g., population density, the percentage of the population over 65, median income, the share of the vote President Trump won in the 2016 election) and that, most importantly, share a similar cumulative COVID-19 death rate in the 20-day period surrounding the primary.what is known about the clinical effects of the virus. That is, if a primary were to lead to an increase in a county’s mortality rate, the effect would show up between 13 and 32 days after an election.

“>2 Accordingly, matched counties are similar to one other when it comes to the course of the COVID-19 epidemic and risk factors — but one county held its primary and the other has not.

Let’s look at Chippewa County, Wisconsin as an example. Wisconsin’s chaotic April 7 primary was the first major election with in-person voting since states began issuing stay-at-home orders. We matched Chippewa with five3 of the most demographically similar counties that had similar cumulative COVID-19 death rates but had not held their primary, including Sumner County, Kansas; Madison County, Kentucky; and Rensselaer County, New York. These counties each had cumulative death rates similar to Chippewa in the period around the Wisconsin primary, and scored relatively closely on our demographic measures.

Once we had this set of counties, we compared the observed mortality rate after the primary in Chippewa to the average of its five matches over the same (post-primary) period. Performing this procedure across all of the counties that held primaries in our data, we found that there was no overall average increase in the mortality rate in counties that held primary elections compared to their matches.4

In our second approach to the data, we wanted to replicate our results using a method specifically tailored to study the transmission of a virus but that relied on a wholly different set of assumptions.5 In our analysis, we tested the effect of two key dates: the date a state’s governor issued a stay-at-home order and the date of the state’s primary election (if applicable, in either case). We then combined information from across the U.S. into a single model that estimated the overall effect of holding a primary election.

While statewide lockdowns appeared to have reduced the transmission of COVID-19, the primary elections had no effect. Below, you can see the rate at which the virus spreads in Florida and Illinois, two populous states that held primaries in the early phase of the virus, throughout the spring. This is only two of the 34 states we looked at, but the effects on COVID-19 transmission in Florida and Illinois are representative of the overall average that we calculated across all of the states included in our analysis.

In other words, we found no evidence in our two separate analyses that the primaries had any effect on the spread of the coronavirus. That said, we should interpret these findings cautiously. There’s a lot we still don’t know about the coronavirus; moreover, tracking the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. has been challenging due to the aforementioned testing shortages and reporting delays. Additionally, we faced difficulties in uncovering certain aspects of the primaries — for example, there is no reliable data on in-person turnout at the county level.

In short, we did not find a spike in the mortality rate associated with the primary elections. This led us to conclude, based on our analysis, that in-person voting remains a viable way for Americans to have their voices heard this November.

There are, though, several key differences between the primaries and the general election in November that should be kept in mind with respect to the safety of voting in person. First, most of the primary elections were held under fair-weather conditions, enabling individuals to wait in long lines outside, at a lower risk of transmission. That risk will be higher if voters are crammed indoors to avoid cold weather. Second, turnout numbers are generally much higher in the general election than in the primaries. And given the particularly contentious nature of this presidential election, it could be that above-average turnout increases the risk of the virus spreading, perhaps because of large crowds at the polls.

Superspreader events do happen when people assemble. A single wedding in Maine has been linked to at least 270 cases and eight deaths, representing over 5 percent of the total deaths in the state, and Trump’s recent bout with COVID-19, linked to a White House event, has already been associated with more than two dozen positive test results in his circle. However, these superspreader events are intimate affairs associated with close contact and a lack of precautions. Voting, on the other hand, is generally not a social activity. People tend to stay apart, and are often in relatively large and well-ventilated spaces such as school gymnasiums. What’s more, people tend to be quiet, or even silent, while voting (loud talking and singing have been associated with viral transmission and outbreaks).

And as our research shows, there is no inherent relationship between voting in person in the primaries and the spread of COVID-19. If anything, voting may be similar to shopping at a grocery store in terms of risk. Provided that voting sites equip poll workers with personal protective gear and voters take the necessary precautions, such as wearing a mask and physically distancing while waiting in line, there’s no reason why people who do not fall into high-risk groups for COVID-19 should rule out voting in person.

This research was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; the views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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