NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – The first COVID-19 death in New Mexico occurred on March 22, 2020. Now, as we approach the one year anniversary of that date, more than 3,800 New Mexicans have died, according to the state’s Department of Health. And across the nation, more than half a million Americans have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Over the past year, political debates over how to stop the pandemic and ease the death count reached a boiling point, with presidential tweets spurring national debates and political protesters taking to the New Mexico Roundhouse when the policy debate split along party lines. 

Story continues below

As a follow-up to our recent analysis of a year’s worth of case data and to understand why the pandemic became so politicized, KRQE News 13 analyzed the data and spoke to Gabe Sanchez. He’s a political analyst at KRQE news 13 and political science professor at the University of New Mexico.

Did politics affect the death count?

Yes, according to Sanchez. He says there’s clear evidence that the federal response shaped the death toll.

“That’s one we do know definitively,” Sanchez says. “Things would not have been as severe, in terms of outcomes, if the Trump administration would have acted more quickly and more aggressively.”

While calculating the number of deaths that might have been prevented given a different federal response is nearly impossible, as of March 18, 2021, the United States has had more deaths than any other country, and ranks in the top 7% in terms of countries with the most deaths per capita, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine data. Some health experts attribute many of those deaths to the inconsistent federal response.

In terms of state politics, New Mexico and its neighbors — Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah — each had a strong initial response to the pandemic, ramping up restrictions as the first cases appeared, according to data from the COVID-19 US State Policy Database and the CDC. Those initial restrictions were eased to varying degrees in the following weeks. But in New Mexico, restrictions reappeared quickly and were maintained at or near the same intensity as the initial restrictions. Our neighbors, however, each maintained fewer restrictions after the initial flurry of orders.

KRQE news 13 previously reported that public health experts have said restrictive orders helped ease cases in New Mexico. And while it’s impossible to untangle the effects of any given health order, New Mexico’s first wave of deaths was relatively small compared to neighboring states, after accounting for the size of each state’s population.

Yet, New Mexico’s second wave of deaths appears more severe than Texas’s second wave, despite the fact that we had nearly double the number of restrictions throughout the pandemic. Colorado, which maintained a similar number of restrictions as Texas, had a shorter-lived but more severe second wave of deaths. And Arizona, which had fewer restrictions for most of the pandemic, experienced relatively severe first and second waves.

New Mexico had more statewide mandates (orange, counted on the right side of graph) throughout the pandemic than its neighbors. New Mexico also had a smaller initial wave of deaths than some neighboring states (blue, counted on the left side of graph). Data from COVID-19 US State Policy Database & CDC.

The data suggest that different types of restrictions may have different impacts on the death toll, explains Julia Raifman, a population health and social policy researcher at Boston University. She helped create the COVID-19 US State Policy Database. “We see, at the population level, that the state mask orders have been associated with declines in COVID cases,” she says. And Raifman points to a recently published CDC report showing that on-site dining tends to speed up both case and death rates, suggesting that orders closing indoor dining should improve the death rate.

So while certain mandates (or the lack thereof) appear to be linked to the death rate, the connection between a state’s politics and the death rate is less clear. As indicated by the governor’s party, a state’s political party has no apparent relationship to the state’s per capita death rate. But politics, of course, shape policy, including restrictions.

The data shows no clear connection between a state’s political party (as defined by the governor’s party) and per capita COVID-19 deaths.

How did politics shape pandemic policy?

“For the most part — including here in New Mexico — Democrats felt as though continuing to attack the health implications of COVID-19 was the number one priority,” Gabe Sanchez says. Republicans, on the other hand, tend to focus on “the economic recovery side of things, including opening up businesses. So that has been really the fault line, if you will, between Democrats and Republicans, throughout the pandemic.”

Generally speaking, the states with the highest number of restrictive mandates were those with Democratic governors. In contrast, the states with the fewest mandates had Republican leaders, according to data from the COVID-19 US State Policy Database and Ballotpedia.

The most restrictive states tended to have Democratic leadership, while the least restrictive states were led by Republican governors.

“As we looked across the country in terms of the policies that states were putting out, it varied almost night and day depending on whether you live in a Democratically governed state or Republican governed state,” Sanchez says. Under Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s leadership, New Mexico quickly became one of the states with the most state-mandated restrictions.

As of March 9, 2021, New Mexico had experienced 21 different restrictive orders throughout the pandemic, including everything from a mask mandate to three orders to close restaurants (with openings in between). In total, the data reveals that New Mexico is second only to Pennsylvania, which issued 22 mandates. Texas and Arizona had 17 restrictive mandates each, and South Dakota was the least restrictive, with only four restrictive mandates, according to the COVID-19 US State Policy Database.

Not only did New Mexico have more restrictions than its neighbors, but the restrictions were often in place longer. The first closure of non-essential businesses, for example, lasted 53 days in New Mexico. In Colorado, the closure lasted 43 days before businesses began to reopen. In Arizona, businesses were closed for 38 days, and in Texas, only 29 days.

Initial restaurant closures followed a similar trend. New Mexico’s first round of takeout-only-type restaurant closures lasted 68 days. Colorado shut down restaurants for 71 days. Arizona had them closed for 51 days, and Texas closed them for 41 days, the database reveals.

Knowing that our neighboring states are taking a different policy approach may be driving some of the political pressure in our state, Sanchez says. “Most of our neighboring states are led by Republicans,” Sanchez points out. As a result, “we’re seeing much different realities in terms of how their states are responding to COVID.”

Now that COVID-19 case numbers are easing across New Mexico and Texas has lifted its mask mandate and reopened businesses, the political debates may get more heated. “The politics of this become more extreme as the COVID-19 numbers start to look better,” Sanchez says. When the death tolls are high, it’s harder to criticize tough restrictions, he explains. As vaccines roll out and the numbers improve, however, it becomes easier to call on state leaders to prioritize economic recovery over restrictive health orders.

How does economics play into the politics of the pandemic?

“The reality is: The long term implications of the economic inequality and everything that we’re seeing across the country — that’s very real,” Sanchez says. “Our politics and our economics have always gone hand in hand.”

John Gibson, an economics professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, who has studied the economic impact of stay-at-home mandates, adds that the coronavirus’s economic impact differs across industries. While some industries have seen little economic impact from the pandemic, others, such as restaurants and tourism, have been “decimated,” he says. And although restrictive policies, such as stay-at-home orders, certainly don’t boost the economy, their negative effect is lower than you might expect.

Both decreased consumer confidence from the pandemic — fear that keeps people home, for example — and restrictive policies have slowed the economy, Gibson says. But, “it’s the pandemic itself, not the policy response that’s causing the most damage,” he points out, at least in the short term, according to his research on stay-at-home orders.

“One of the biggest drivers of economic activity is consumer spending,” Gibson explains. Even without the politically-fraught orders and mandates, “people don’t go out to restaurants when they think they’re going to get sick.”

When did the pandemic become political?

“It’s always been political,” Sanchez says. The warning signs were apparent even before the pandemic: “Our state, as well as the rest of the country, has never been this segmented based on partisanship, and party polarization really has never been as extreme as it is,” he explains, “and that was happening before the pandemic struck.”

Sanchez points to 2019 debates over a gun control bill as a sign that New Mexico was already a state divided before the pandemic. “We saw sheriffs across Republican counties say we’re not going to follow policies,” Sanchez explains. Similar political divisions continued as New Mexico Senate and House Republicans criticized Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s response to the pandemic. And the divide seems to run deep, according to Curry County Commissioner Robert O. Sandoval.

“What has bothered me more than anything else,” Sandoval says, “is it used to be friendships before politics. Now it’s politics before friendships.” He says that he can’t remember a time when the parties were so divided. “The one thing that you never did hear was the word ‘hate’,” he explains. But now, he says, that’s changed.

What political debates can we expect in the near future?

Moving forward, the discussion over mandated vaccines will be a partisan debate and likely hotly contested, Sanchez predicts. “If you’re seeing huge tension over wearing a mask. What are the tensions going to look like when it comes to having to put a shot not only in your arm but potentially in your kids?” he asks. “I think that’s going to be the next layer of really contentious discussion about policy.”