New York Times columnist David Leonhardt observed on Monday that a trend he diagnosed in June is becoming more pronounced: COVIDis becoming a red state problem.
“Because the vaccines are so effective at preventing serious illness, Covid deaths are also showing a partisan pattern,” he wrote. “Covid is still a national crisis, but the worst forms of it are increasingly concentrated in red America.” While Leonhardt is correct about the lamentable ways in which partisanship informs vaccination rates, the trajectory of this virus is still failing to follow a predictable pattern.
At present, the Delta variant-fueled surge has produced a disturbing number of infections in states like Alaska, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana—red states, to be sure. And some hospitals in those states are becoming overwhelmed with patients who present very serious symptoms. But case rates are also rising in some purple and blue states. As of this writing, infections in Wisconsin have increased by 72 percent in a two-week period. Case rates are up by 34 percent in Michigan, 31 percent in Maine, and 25 percent in Vermont in a similar timeframe, even as infections decline precipitously in Delta-afflicted hot spots like Florida and Texas.
Leonhardt correctly observes that bad outcomes resulting from a COVID infection are directly related to vaccination uptake, and politics is a factor when it comes to immunization. But infection rates are not following the same pattern. That leads us to a conclusion that should be rather obvious: COVID is not, in fact, “still a national crisis.” It is now a regional crisis.
Those affected regions can and will change, and our responses should be as nimble as the virus. But imposing mitigation strategies on populations that are not inundated with COVID cases and have relatively high vaccination rates does not make sense. We should not dispatch FEMA to regions to New York to relieve the suffering endured by hurricane victims in Louisiana. Likewise, we should not impose the CDC’s recommendations for pandemic-afflicted areas of the country on areas that are not so afflicted.
To this, there will be predictable objections. Americans travel, and one state’s population is not secure against another’s. There are still no approved vaccines for children, and children everywhere are at risk of infection. Observing mitigation strategies reduces the risk of future outbreaks, ensuring that areas of the country that are not inundated with COVID cases stay that way. And, of course, COVID remains a pandemic, which, by definition, is not a local phenomenon.
The vaccines have made short work of many of these arguments. As The New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells noted, a detailed study of COVID infections in and around Seattle found that being vaccinated “cuts an individual’s risk of hospitalization and death to less than a fortieth” of the risk to the unvaccinated. Mercifully, researchers at Yale concluded that “the average age of the patients sick enough to require oxygen was just over eighty.” Children are just not as exposed to the risks this disease presents to adults. And as for breakthrough cases, one infectious disease expert with New York University told Wallace-Wells that both severity and risk are similar to having the flu.
Public health experts are still struggling to define what constitutes success in the struggle against this disease, but many are increasingly inclined toward the idea that living with it as a permanent feature of life is the only realistic option. “The major goalposts should have always been the hospitalizations and deaths,” Boston Children’s Hospital epidemiologist John Brownstein told ABC News. COVID vaccines make that possible. If the near-term public health objective is to render COVID just one of many coronaviruses that bloom seasonally in some locations but not others, that objective is at hand right now.
COVID maximalists are perpetually vexed by the states and municipalities that do not observe their strict mitigation protocols, and that’s not going to change. Indeed, the federalism baked into the American civic contract ensures that experimentation will continue. But that frustration also exposes the fact that COVID has been a regional matter for some time. All that is required of us is to acknowledge that reality.