Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | The recent surge of coronavirus cases has brought us back to square one of our response due to the premature end of statewide stay at home orders.
One of my favorite baseball players of all time is the late, great New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra. Berra, known just as much for his malapropisms as his on-the-field talents, famously said “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Never has this seemed more apt than at this moment in our continued struggle against the Covid-19 pandemic.
We’ve come full circle with the coronavirus pandemic and not in a good way. In the last several days, the U.S. has recorded its highest single-day total of confirmed coronavirus cases, while multiple states—including Texas, Florida and Arizona—all seem to be in a bid to becoming the next virus epicenter, with record highs of confirmed cases and rising hospitalizations. Amid all of this, essential workers are again reporting shortages of crucial personal protective equipment.
This reads as if it were March all over again when the nation was first waking up to the deadly threat the novel virus posed. At that time, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington warned that approximately 81,000 people could lose their lives to Covid-19 in the first wave, with the high end of that estimate topping off at 162,000 deaths. Now with cases in the United States totaling more than 2.6 million, and deaths at over 127,000, it appears as though we may be closer to realizing our worst fears.
At the outset of the pandemic, I remarked how many governors were showing real leadership, as they embraced the expert advice of their public health experts and made decisions based on that information. Now, as we continue to fuel the first wave of Covid-19, it seems like quite the opposite.
The economic hardships that occurred as a result of the pandemic, seen in the explosive number of unemployment filings and widespread business closures, resulted in multiple states prematurely and abruptly ending stay-at-home orders in an attempt to stimulate economic activity. This rush to reopen was a blatant disregard of the advice of public health experts who warned that opening too soon would result in more infections. Many states that reopened hadn’t, and still don’t, meet the White House’s criteria to do so.
Southern states like Georgia and Texas were among the earliest to lift lockdown orders, reopening in some instances before they had reached their projected peak date of infections. Now, as the virus is raging in these and other states it’s clear the experts were right. States reopened too soon and find themselves in a similar position as the northeast was in March and April.
But reopening early wasn’t the only misstep. The speed at which states loosened restrictions also has helped hasten the spread of Covid-19. State officials in California, who had been praised for their initial aggressive shutdowns, allowed counties to reopen at a much faster pace than expected, sparking an exponential rise in infections in the country’s most populated state.
Relatedly, many states reopened without effectively leveraging an important tool to curb infections: face masks. While the guidance on masks has been terribly confusing, public health officials have in recent months underscored the key role they play as part of our arsenal against Covid-19.
Yet, of the five states (Florida, Texas, California, Arizona and Georgia) that have seen the largest number of new cases in the last week, only California has a statewide mask-wearing in public policy in place. And that mandate was only put in place once cases were already well on the rise. That’s baffling considering the findings of a recent study that concluded states that mandated wearing masks in public may have prevented 230,000 to 450,000 Covid-19 cases. That study also found that employee-only face mask policies, which many states have implemented, showed no evidence of slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
Let’s also not forget that our current outbreak is occurring at a time when assistance measures like eviction and foreclosure moratoriums and additional unemployment aid are coming to an end. And, at the moment, the prospect for additional federal aid is very uncertain.
States seem to be right back to where they started and are playing catch up with the virus. Despite that, governors are gingerly responding to this most recent outbreak. While states like Arizona, Florida and Texas are re-shutting down certain mass gathering places like bars and gyms, and others are halting further momentum on reopening, we have yet to see any aggressive movement to contain the spread in the form of containment zones or stay-at-home orders.
Perhaps that might be because as Slate recently reported, while states had criteria in place to inform how they transitioned between phases of reopening, no state appears to have a plan in place for re-closing. As the old saying goes, “failing to plan is planning to fail.” It’s hard not to think that multiple states are on the verge of failing to stop the spread of the virus before it completely overwhelms the health care system.
The virus has remained consistent in the face of inconsistent response. And this recent surge is a disaster of our own making. State leaders knew what worked and abandoned it early, setting us on an uncertain and dangerous path that is preventing the first wave of the pandemic from dissipating and compromising our position when the eventual second wave arrives. Granted, states that ended stay-at-home orders later, like New York and New Jersey, are now reconsidering their plans in light of the increased number of cases. But this is a sobering reminder that progress made can easily be undone without careful planning and consideration. Unfortunately, that lesson is going to have to come at the expense of the health of thousands of individuals.
It’s obvious that the multiple, simultaneous challenges facing the country are daunting. But governors will remain vital actors to the national response since federal leadership is all but nonexistent. If we are going to have any chance of getting a handle on the pandemic, governors must get back to operating as they did in the beginning by identifying and implementing aggressive, science-based measures. It’s time that governors demonstrate that they are willing to do what is right, and not just what is easy, to preserve the health of our communities.
Alisha Powell Gillis is the senior editor of Route Fifty.