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The Unhelpful Red State vs. Blue State COVID Narrative

People go into a New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority bus by the back door during the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, April 22, 2020. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

On the menu today: If you don’t like what the data about the coronavirus pandemic are telling you, just wait a few weeks, it will tell you something different later. States that were in awful shape in July are looking better, and states that were in good shape a month ago have some ominous trends now — which is why shoehorning it all into a my-party-is-good-and-your-party-is-bad narrative is a fool’s errand.

Ominous New Coronavirus Numbers from the Northeast, Hawaii, and Illinois

Nationwide, the daily number of new cases is starting to decline slowly from what appears to have been a peak in mid- to late July. The daily number of new deaths is now well above 1,000 on most weekdays, which is worse than June, but not as bad as April and late May.

There’s something unusual going on in the northeast, a region that got hammered in the spring and, many lawmakers and health experts believed, endured the worst. New Jersey is seeing an increase in cases, but not hospitalizations or deaths. Doctors in Massachusetts are worried about what they call a “slow consistent creep” in that state’s cases — although hospitalizations and deaths still seem pretty low. Apparently Rhode Island now is making nearby states nervous, as Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey want Rhode Islanders to self-quarantine for 14 days upon entering the state, without proof of a negative coronavirus test. The Rhode Island Department of Health tweeted yesterday, “There are a few common threads that we are seeing. One is related to travel. In the last week, roughly 12 percent of our positive cases reported recent travel to Florida, travel in the northeast, and to Midwest.” (Twelve percent doesn’t sound like that much! From the data on Worldometer, that’s about 72 out of 596.)

New York City is now having police stop random drivers entering the city, inquiring about their origin and destination. (Great news, everyone who has been marching in the streets, police have now been given new powers to stop motorists for no reason and ask them where they’re from and where they’re going!) The New York City NBC affiliate dryly observes:

The checkpoints are somewhat reminiscent of a measure Rhode Island took back in March, when coronavirus was running rampant through New York. At that time, the state singled out cars with New York license plates at the border and ordered them to be quarantined — a measure Cuomo vehemently opposed and called “unconstitutional” as the threatened to sue. Not unironically, Rhode Island is now on New York’s must-quarantine list. It was added earlier this week.

In the middle of July, I observed that strictly on the basis of the numbers of new cases and deaths, one of the most successful governors in the country was Hawaii’s David Ige, a Democrat. With quarantine restrictions that more or less shut down the state’s tourism industry immediately — sending unemployment past 23 percent — Ige could at least point to really low case numbers.

Eh, up until recently. “At least 172 new cases were reported in Hawaii on Aug. 5. Over the past week, there have been an average of 128 cases per day, an increase of 532 percent from the average two weeks earlier.” Compared to bigger and more populous states, that number of new cases doesn’t look that bad, but the number of coronavirus patients in Hawaii hospitals is increasing rapidly, and the state has its own unique challenges for health infrastructure. If they run out of hospital beds, they can’t easily send patients to hospitals in adjacent states. (Even though Hawaii has Interstate highways.) Hawaiians may feel like they’re getting the worst of both worlds — they crippled their state’s economy to keep the virus away . . . and the pandemic reached their shores anyway.

Back in May, when Illinois was reporting about 3,000 new cases and about 100 deaths per day, residents of that state probably believed they were getting hit pretty hard — and once those numbers started dropping in June, they probably believed they had managed to get through the worst. But much like the northeastern states, Illinois is seeing an unnerving climb in daily new cases. “Over the past week, there have been an average of 1,644 cases per day, an increase of 32 percent from the average two weeks earlier.” More significantly, the number of hospitalizations is climbing again:

“The number of cases statewide is generally trending upward, and positivity rates have increased throughout the state,” Dr. Ngozi Ezike, head of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said at a news conference Wednesday:

It is true they’re not as high as they were in April or May, but they are increasing. And if we don’t take further steps to reduce the spread of the virus, our numbers will continue to go up and we will be right back where we were just a few months ago.

The northeast, Hawaii, Illinois . . . “put a pin in that,” as the jargon-obsessed corporate consultants say.

Over the past month, you have probably read a great deal about the indisputably newsworthy explosion of new cases in places such as Texas, South Carolina, Arizona, and Florida. All of those states endured a particularly hot July — probably sending people indoors to air conditioning. It’s summer, and all of those states have traditionally been vacation destinations, meaning they’re attracting travelers from other states. All of those states have a considerable number of elderly retirees, a demographic that is particularly vulnerable to this virus. And of course, all are considered fairly Republican-leaning and have GOP governors. At its most incendiary, coverage of this pandemic would leave you believing that COVID-19 is a side effect of electing Republican governors.

The wave of new infections hit these Sun Belt states . . . and now it appears to be receding.

Texas: “Over the past week, there have been an average of 8,414 cases per day, a decrease of 16 percent from the average two weeks earlier.”

South Carolina: “Over the past week, there have been an average of 1,375 cases per day, a decrease of 25 percent from the average two weeks earlier.”

Arizona: “Over the past week, there have been an average of 1,981 cases per day, a decrease of 28 percent from the average two weeks earlier.”

Florida: “Over the past week, there have been an average of 7,331 cases per day, a decrease of 34 percent from the average two weeks earlier.”

Coming back to that pin . . . As July turned to August, some of the red states getting hit hard started to see a slow decline in caseload, and some of the blue states that had been hit pretty mildly in the previous month started to see a slow increase in caseload. This pandemic is not a story of good and wise Democratic governors presiding over good and wise citizens in blue states with “SCIENCE!” and bad and foolish Republican governors conducting “experiments in human sacrifice” on reckless and ignorant citizens in red states — no matter how many people want, or perhaps even need to believe that.

Allow me to offer a theory that doesn’t reassure partisans of any stripe: The virus is spread by human interaction, and human beings who live in red states and blue states and purple states all like to interact with each other, particularly when they’ve been told to stay at home for months at a time.

Young people, in particular, like house parties in Los Angeles and Greenwich, Conn., underground parties in Manhattan, mansion parties in Bergen County, N.J., and delayed-prom parties at the Jersey Shore. They like big parties in Oakland County, Mich., Palm Beach County, Fla., Prince George’s County, Md., Hampton Roads, Va., and wedding receptions near Pittsburgh.

Human beings are social creatures. Any pandemic strategy that required people to avoid other people as much as possible for the better part of a year was destined to fail.

The same pattern occurs in state after state. People believe the virus isn’t that bad or that they themselves are unlikely to catch it. It’s the sort of thing that happens to other people, not them. They go about their lives, with minimal adjustments to the reality of living during a pandemic. The virus spreads and the number of new cases increases. Hospitalization rates increase. Deaths increase. Local and state officials start worrying and enacting mask rules and other steps. People gradually start following the rules and altering their behavior. The virus spreads less, the number of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths decline.

The belief that the coronavirus won’t reach you at your social gathering isn’t a Republican trait or a Democratic trait, a young trait or an old trait. (This may stun you, but it turns out that elderly people who have lived their lives a particular way for decades are not eager to change their habits.) Single people are still trying to meet that special someone, and married couples are still eager to host those backyard barbecues. I’m sure some members of Congress are still eager to form that special “throuple.” The human desire for connection with others is not attached to a light switch that can be turned on and off.

Are You Interacting Face-to-Face Without Masks? Then You’re at Higher Risk

Jonathan Ellen, the former CEO of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, offers a useful and succinct summary of the risks on NRO today:

Settings where there is direct face-to-face talking without facial coverings, such as bars or large indoor dinner parties, are at high risk for a super-spreader or outbreak event. Mass transit, museums, theaters, outdoor sporting events, and maybe even beaches don’t inherently create close direct face-to-face contact and thus may not represent high risk for accelerated transmission. However, in any of these settings, if people engage in direct face-to-face contact with people outside their own household without a facial covering, then risk of transmission for an outbreak goes up.

Replacing the Old Intermittently Murderous Religions with a New, More Explicitly Murderous Religion

On a regular basis, I read Kevin Williamson and think, “I wish I had thought of that, and written it so clearly.”

Reading Julia Lovell’s fascinating new Maoism: A Global History is, among other things, a dive into a complex political story that has at its heart not an ideology but a cult. The Maoism Lovell describes is in many ways an identifiably religious phenomenon, complete with devotion to a sacred book, adoration of icons, rites of confession and penance, and a benevolent god–man/prophet. It speaks to the same anxieties and needs as religion. It offers a moral principle — however insane and murderous — around which a life might be organized.

ADDENDUM: Robert P. George, with a brief bite of wisdom that everyone in the political world should heed:

Everyone needs to remember that good and noble causes can be, and have been, sullied and discredited by ideological extremists, fanatics, fundamentalists, authoritarians, hucksters, grifters, etc. who violate people’s rights and assault human dignity in the name of the cause.

A wise man once told me that the difference between a conservative and a right-wing ideologue is that the conservative cares about how he gets what he wants, while the right-wing ideologue only cares that he gets what he wants.

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