650,000 Would Still Be Alive if the Nation had the Bay Area’s Death Rate

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: United States

Publishing organisation: The Mercury News, San Jose, California

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-05-15

Language: English

Authors: John Woolfolk, Harriet Blair Rowan, Pai


John Woolfolk is a veteran reporter and editor covering news in the Bay Area since 1990. A native of New Orleans, he grew up near San Jose and is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism.

Harriet Blair Rowan is a data reporter who received her master’s degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously did investigative research and data reporting for Reveal and Kaiser Health News.

Pai, aka Paiching Wei, is the Bay Area News Group graphics director who manages and creates news information graphics, illustrations and other visuals.

Project description:

If the United States had the San Francisco Bay Area’s death rate from COVID-19, 350,000 people would have died so far — not 1 million, the astounding number of deaths the country reached in May 2022.

How did the Bay Area avoid the worst of the virus’s wrath? In short, it behaved – and reaped the rewards.

The Mercury News analyzed more than two years of state and regional COVID death and vaccination rates, and census, health and mobility data to explore how and why the Bay Area and California stood out from the pandemic pack. The numbers tell the story – loudly.

Impact reached:

The project was the first comprehensive examination of how the San Franscisco Bay Area’s aggressive COVID policies — the first regional lockdowns, comprehensive masking rules, high vaccination rates — and other regional factors — demographics, obesity and other chronic health rates — factored into its comparatively low COVID death rates nationally. The story took a deep dive into the fraught political debate over public health measures during the pandemic. It provided one of the most thorough reviews of how California and the Bay Area fared remarkably better than other parts of the country that were quicker to reopen and dismiss the public health threats. The outcome was not only a major Sunday spread in our newspapers, marking the month in which the U.S. registered its one millionth COVID deaths. With its vivid and expansive interactive data visulations online, it will serve as a lasting accounting of the Bay Area’s experience during the biggest pandemic of our lives.

Techniques/technologies used:

The design and layout was created using Webflow.com, which helped produce the animated scroll effect. To create the infographics, we gathered and analyzed the data using Excel, Google Sheets and visualized the data with Flourish.com.

The online story is filled with comphrensive graphics, including the variations among death rates in all 50 states, examinations of the lowest death rates among major US counties, vaccination rates among major US counties, animated graphics showing the deadly path of COVID state-by-state across the pandemic, and more.

Context about the project:

As the U.S. approached its one millionth death from COVID in early 2022, editors and reporters at the
Bay Area News Group began a discussion of how to commemorate this awful milestone. What, we asked
ourselves, was the distinctive story for our news organization to tell – the one that stood apart from the
litany of misery and suffering around the country? And we quickly realized that our story was the way this
region itself stood apart: high vaccination rates, strong masking and social distancing policies, and a
widespread commitment to following the guidance of experts in science and health. We had told pieces of
that story many times, but we’d never tried to pull it all together and quantify the impact of the Bay Area’s
singular approach to COVID health policies. This was the time to do it.
Data journalist Harriet Blair Rowan teamed with John Woolfolk, a key member of our main COVID
team and one of our best critical thinkers, to dig into the numbers – looking not just at key metrics for the
Bay Area but putting them in state, national and worldwide context. But as we pulled together the
individual components – vaccination rates, infection rates, death rates, and measures of underlying health
– we strained for the one key data point that would tell the story powerfully and succinctly. Then it hit us:
The country was closing in on a million deaths, but if the Bay Area’s death rate could be replicated around
the country, we would be nowhere close to that milestone. Instead, we calculated, the U.S. would be
closing in on 350,000 deaths – 651,000 people would still be alive. It was a contrived number, to be
sure, but one that hit with potent force.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

Journalists recognize the challenge of saying something new, compelling and instructive in stories that mark milestones and anniversaries. That’s why we began planning conceptually for a way to definitively mark the millionth COVID death in a distinctive way that would differentiate our coverage from everyone else’s. Deep data analysis was the way to go. But we also recognized numbers alone were not enough. Despite its comparative successes, the Bay Area had its own tales of tragedy, and we realized that the thrust of our reporting might risk minimizing the heartbreak. So we enlisted Julia Prodis Sulek, a gifted feature writer, to chart the course of COVID through the tales of individuals, bringing emotion to otherwise flat numbers. Julia hit upon the device of obituaries, written by families, as a public manifestation of how our region
dealt with disease and deaths that, in many cases, could have been prevented. Her poignant work became part two of our series, and is attached as a supplement to our entry.

Project links: