“U.S. Northeast governors order quarantine of visitors from coronavirus hot spot states” (Reuters)
On Wednesday, July 24th, the governors from three Northeast states, NY, CT, and NJ, created strong advisories for travelers from states with high rates of infection to self-quarantine for 14 days or face thousands of dollars in fines. On Friday, the United States logged 45,242 new cases of COVID-19, the largest single-day increase of the pandemic. The entire Northeast from New York to Maine logged only 1,554 new cases that day.
Why does it matter?
If high-rate states don’t take stopping the virus seriously, it will further divide the U.S. into virus-free regions where travel within the region is open, and high-virus regions where travel is restricted. This will further delay the recovery of the economy as well as add a physical separation onto the growing list of factors dividing Americans—politics, race, and class.
It’s not just the states that are forced to isolate themselves from each other. The European Union (EU) decided to extend its ban on travellers from the U.S. for the same reasons, the EU has made significant progress in fighting the virus and the U.S. poses a risk to that investment. In contrast, Canada, Japan, and China (if it reciprocates), are just a few of the countries that can restart travel between Europe in July. Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to crow about their success in stopping the virus. A position increasingly difficult to reconcile given the new case counts as well as the states’ and the EU’s decision.
Governor Phil Murphy of New Jersey stressed to Reuters the importance of not squandering the sacrifices made by the citizenry, “We have taken our people, the three of us from these three states, through hell and back, and the last thing we need to do right now is subject our folks to another round.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo echoed similar sentiments to the Wall Street Journal. “We have to make sure the virus doesn’t come in on a plane again. Learned that lesson. Been there, done that.”
“Protecting the public health should be a nonpartisan issue. But for now, at least, it is very much an issue defined by partisan divisions, and that means the response is very different in different parts of the country, which impedes our ability to take coordinated action to protect the public’s health,” Jonathan Oberlander, professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill told the Boston Globe.
In July of 2019, the idea of preventing travel from one part of the U.S. to another for fear of spreading a deadly flu-like virus seemed the stuff of dystopian fiction.
Despite the new reality, it’s not too late for the federal government to coordinate a response to COVID-19. In doing so, the administration would set the country on a firm footing to tackle the current and future outbreaks. With a consistent plan going forward, states could simultaneously stop the spread of the virus thereby, ensuring everyone is protected as the country looks to fully reopen the economy.
The longer this drags on the more difficult it becomes to fight the virus—as it depletes financial resources, pushes unemployment higher, strains health resources, and drains people’s resolve to try. Additionally, the divisions between virus-free areas and virus-active areas become wider as well, further straining economies that depend on tourism. But until all of the states are on the same page, the U.S. risks a vicious cycle of infection surges.
That’s assuming no new viruses emerge.
How did it come to this?
In 2017, when the Trump administration took office, a ceremony of sorts took place. The outgoing Obama administration prepped the incoming Trump administration on the potential threat of a pandemic and corresponding preparedness response. The report, obtained by Politico, outlined almost every problem the pandemic would cause as we have come to experience it. Moreover, the National Security Council (NSC) had a 69-page “playbook” for fighting a pandemic. “The guide further calls for a ‘unified message’ on the federal response, in order to best manage the American public’s questions and concerns. Early coordination of risk communications through a single federal spokesperson is critical,” said Politico’s Dan Diamond and Nahal Toosi.
In the absence of central leadership, the success, or lack thereof, had everything to do with each states’ politics and initial response efforts. States that acted apolitically and put public health first (like in the Northeast) had better outcomes. The states experiencing outbreaks now did little to quell the virus in April or May but then loosened restrictions anyway in an effort to appease the President and reduce the economic harm. In Arizona, one day before a planned visit by President Trump, Governor Doug Ducey (R) announced plans to accelerate the reopening of his state’s economy, despite a rising number of new cases. At the same time, Governor Ducey, up until last week, forbade local authorities from requiring masks.
The virus persists even in states that responded well. Massachusetts, for example, is still adding new cases by the hundreds. But that is 86% less than the seven-day average for May 15th to May 21st. In order to stamp out the virus, the U.S. needs to set politics aside and leverage the experience of the countries that lead successful virus responses—New Zealand, Vietnam, Austria, Singapore, S. Korea. Those countries, while smaller but also much less wealthy, mounted effective campaigns to stop the disease. They did it by working as one. The economy can’t recover until the virus is stopped everywhere. It’s not rocket science, but it is science—test, trace, social distance/wear masks and wash your hands.