MINOT, N.D. — If you watched the recent debate in North Dakota's gubernatorial race, hosted by Prairie Public, you realize just how useful a political weapon the coronavirus outbreak has become.
Give credit, then, to Governor Doug Burgum and other leaders in his administration for unflinchingly pursuing as much data about the outbreak as they can, even though that data has often proved to be politically inconvenient.
"If North Dakota was a country, it would have the world's worst confirmed COVID-19 outbreak," read a recent headline from my colleague Michelle Griffith, citing an analysis that's been making the rounds on social media.
"The Czech Republic currently has the most confirmed COVID-19 cases per million people worldwide. But if North Dakota was its own nation, it would surpass the per capita COVID-19 case count of the central European country," the lead of her report stated.
There's a problem with that analysis, though. Not every country, and not even every American state, is looking for the coronavirus in the same way North Dakota is.
Burgum spokesman Mike Nowatzki made that point to Griffith. "When asked about the analysis, Mike Nowatzki, spokesperson for Gov. Doug Burgum, said it was important to note that North Dakota is conducting COVID-19 testing at nearly four times the rate of testing that is being done in the Czech Republic, citing information from the publication Our World in Data," Griffith wrote. "Nowatzki said that since North Dakota conducts thorough testing which finds many asymptomatic positive cases, it drives the state's per capita rate higher."
That's exactly right, and not only is North Dakota doing more testing than many other countries in the world, but we're also doing more than any other state in the union.
It's not even close, really.
According to data accumulated by Johns Hopkins University, and covering testing through October 22, North Dakota is #1 with a bullet when it comes to tests per 100,000 citizens.
Rhode Island is in second place, and after that, the testing rate falls off a cliff.
When it comes to the amount of testing being done, our state is an outlier.
North Dakota has tested at a rate that's more than double that of neighbors in Minnesota and Montana, and it's closing in on quadrupling what South Dakota is going.
One reason why North Dakota is finding more coronavirus positives is we're doing more to look for them than just about anywhere else in the world, and other COVID-19 data bears out this conclusion. North Dakota's positivity rate is at the high end of the spectrum, when compared to other states, but as this chart from Johns Hopkins illustrates, we're not nearly the outlier the analysis Griffith wrote about suggests even despite our very high rate of testing (the chart shows data through October 22):
Something else which can make comparing our COVID-19 numbers to other states, or even other countries, extremely difficult?
Our low population.
The Czech Republic is home to about 10.6 million; North Dakota's population is about 762,000.
A birthday party where a couple of dozen show up and contract COVID-19 is something that can happen anywhere, but when it happens in a place like North Dakota, that incident is more statistically significant, when we're measuring positives-per-capita, than if it happened in Prague.
Or Minneapolis, for that matter.
Also, we're a rural state, and people who live in rural areas tend to move around more than our urban neighbors, which is a point University of North Dakota professor David Flynn made when I called to run my theories about North Dakota's low population skewing positive rates.
Flynn is an economist and knows a thing or two about sample sizes and how our state's population lives.
"Most per capita measures are dangerous for North Dakota, simply because we are a small population state and there are thresholds in many measures below which a population will not fall," Flynn said.
Our most densely populated areas — cities like Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck, and Minot — are not only home to the people who live there but act as service hubs in areas like shopping and health care for a much larger geographical area, Flynn noted.
Flynn pointed out that not only does our low population make every new positive in North Dakota more significant than in more populous areas, but rural people have patterns of movement that can facilitate spread in surprising ways.
None of which makes the spread of COVID-19 in North Dakota less serious. Thousands have contracted the disease, and hundreds have died, and that's not a small thing.
Still, if we're going to make comparisons, we should make sure we understand what the limitations of those comparisons are.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at email@example.com.