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State governments increasingly affecting health outcomes, researcher writes

A physician and population health expert writes that differing state political priorities and economic circumstances has led to the country’s fragmented health policy.

Health outcomes in the United States are increasingly dependent on decisions being made at the state level, according to a viewpoint piece published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The paper cites disparities in health across the 50 states are growing, a trend that began in the 1990s. He uses the recent example of COVID-19 to illustrate differences in outcomes in Florida and New York.

Excess deaths from COVID-19 provide a sharp example of this trend that particularly showed up in Florida, according to the author, Dr. Steven Woolf,population health chair and director of health equity with the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“During the fall 2021 delta surge, the state of Florida had  three times as many excess deaths as the state of New York," says Woolf, a family physician. "Some of that can be blamed on viral epidemiology and so forth. But it’s likely that a big factor explaining that difference is the different policy approach that Florida took compared to a state like New York.”

The states have roughly the same population, Woolf adds.

In other countries, a national response generated a better outcome.

“If you look at how the United States did with COVID, compared to other countries, you find that we not only  experienced more deaths than other countries, but even after adjusting for population size, our rate of deaths was among the highest in the world," Woolf says. "And when you look at other countries that did much better than the United States, you find that they mounted a national response to the pandemic.”

Policies that would reduce viral transmission, such as masking, social distancing, and avoiding big crowds, became politicized, he cites.

“There was early in the pandemic an unfortunate framing that came out of a conflict between what doctors want and what’s good for the economy," Woolf says. "And what the data show us — and certainly that was the experience of many communities across the country — is that the two were tied hand in hand.  So places that were not as aggressive in dealing with the virus ended up with longer surges and more disruption to their economy than states that acted more forcefully at the beginning and were able to get community spread under control.”

The trend is not limited to COVID, Woolf adds, as legislatures across the country pass laws that have a direct effect on health and longevity.

“In state capitals across the country, a lot of laws are being passed at quite a pace that  will affect many aspects of our lives, like voting rights and abortion and so forth, also will have increasing health implications. So this is not just a curious observation about COVID," says Woolf. "It’s about the future of our health.  That decisions being made by governors and state legislatures are going to affect how long people can live. That’s always been true, but it’s getting increasingly true as time goes on.” 

Copyright 2022 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Cary Barbor is the local host of All Things Considered and a reporter for WGCU. She was a producer for Martha Stewart Radio on Sirius XM, where she hosted a live interview show with authors of new books called Books and Authors. She was a producer for The Leonard Lopate Show, a live, daily show that covered arts, culture, politics, and food on New York City’s public radio station WNYC. She also worked as a producer on Studio 360, a weekly culture magazine; and The Sunday Long Read, a show that features in-depth conversations with journalists and other writers. She has filed stories for The Pulse and Here & Now. In addition to radio, she has a career writing for magazines, including Salon, Teen Vogue, New York, Health, and More. She has published short stories and personal essays and is always working on a novel. She was a Knight Journalism Fellow, where she studied health reporting at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and followed epidemiologists around Kenya and Alaska. She has a B.A. in English from Lafayette College and an M.A. in Literature from the University of Massachusetts.