The novel coronavirus that we know as COVID-19 reached the U.S. on both coasts when it entered the country in January of last year. The first recorded case was reported in Snohomish County in Washington state, where a man presented symptoms after returning from a visit to his family in Wuhan, China.
The great retelling of the story, though, may well recall the disease as having had an east-to-west progression across the country, because that’s how the worst of it appeared to play out. A sudden explosion of cases in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey riveted the nation’s attention on those areas in March and April of 2020. Several times during that period, the three states alone accounted for as many new cases as all the states to their west and south combined. Stories proliferated about how California’s quick action to keep people at home had produced a tremendous safety advantage over New York, where sickness appeared to be running rampant.
It may have been a comforting notion to Californians at the time, but as we see now, it was a false premise built on a misunderstanding of how COVID-19 was spreading. In retrospect, what was happening on the East Coast was a model predictor for what would soon occur on a large scale and devastating basis throughout the Midwest and the West. No region proved exempt.
A year later, scientists fear something of a reprise, but this time it’s Florida that may be a bellwether. While health experts and researchers wring their hands over the coming eruption of a fourth wave of the virus and its variants, Florida has dramatically lifted its restrictions and welcomed tourists of all stripes, including thousands of spring breakers. Unsurprisingly, infection rates are up.
But Florida isn’t alone; it’s merely further along the timeline of consequences. Across the country, governors and mayors are loosening safety restrictions, while a pandemic weary populace throws off its collective mask and behaves as if the crisis is over
It isn’t. And it is going to devastate the same populations that have been ravaged by the past rounds of the disease: communities of color and neighborhoods filled with lower-income workers who lack adequate access to health care. Worse, some of those at the highest levels of government can see it coming. They just can’t stop it.
Monday was an unusual day even by the standards of the COVID-19 timeline. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Rochelle Walensky, interrupted her own presentation to announce she was going to “lose the script” and instead deliver an emotional message – “Right now, I’m scared” – as she reviewed evidence that cases of the virus are once again on the rise. A New York Times database, meanwhile, showed the seven-day average of new cases had jumped 16% in two weeks, and Walensky said she had a premonition of “impending doom” about where the data is heading.
Not long after that, President Joe Biden implored state and local leaders to either keep current mask requirements in place or, if they’d lifted them, to reinstate such requirements right away, and he suggested that states are reopening too soon and risking a reversal of the progress made against COVID in many of them. Said the president, “People are letting up on precautions, which is a very bad thing. We are giving up hard-fought, hard-won gains.”
Those are the sounds of a national emergency once again being signaled, and the numbers support the concern: Some 30 states, plus the District of Columbia, are reporting an increase in cases. That includes the newer strains of the virus, which so far have proved difficult to contain and, according to some studies, significantly more deadly. But in an interview on Face the Nation, the president’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said state and local governments are easing safety measures and the public is responding by becoming much more mobile, including a huge spike in air travel.
“What we’re likely seeing is because of things like spring break and pulling back on the mitigation methods that you’ve seen,” Fauci said. “Now, several states have done that. I believe it’s premature.”
Florida was certainly out in front. Its Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, has never issued a statewide mask mandate, and last fall he banned local governments from enforcing such a requirement in their own areas. Earlier this month, DeSantis declared that “there are no lockdowns in Florida,” and Monday he greeted news of the suddenly rising number of COVID cases in his state by saying, “We anticipated a little bit of a blip-up in March, just because that’s typically what happens.”
As tempting as it might be to view that as a Florida problem, the virus doesn’t work that way. Last week, Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the board of supervisors that even though the county is currently experiencing a decrease in COVID cases, what’s happening back East is going to matter in California sooner or later.
“This past year indicates that often the East Coast experiences increases in cases before the West Coast,” Ferrer said. “We do not yet have enough vaccine protection across the country to prevent more transmission if we’re not extraordinarily careful in these next few weeks.”
Instead, Gov. Gavin Newsom has gone the other way, lowering the infection-rate requirements for counties to exit the state’s most restrictive tiers of prevention. People in places like L.A. County, mimicking Floridians to some extent, have responded by becoming much more active, with crowds surging to partially opened restaurants, beaches, gyms and public spaces.
No matter how or where it begins, any renewed spread of COVID-19 and its variants is going to land at the doorstep of the people who can least afford another hit. During the massive early wave last year, lower income neighborhoods became vectors of the virus. In densely populated areas, especially packed urban settings, hot spots cropped up all over the map: Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans.
When the virus hit Los Angeles, the effect was gradual but crushing. Communities of color, where living conditions are often crowded and sometimes multigenerational, were ravaged by disease. But many residents said they had no choice but to continue showing up in person at their workplaces – in food preparation, meatpacking, airline and hotel services, etc. – because it’s the only way for them to get paid and (sometimes) keep their health insurance. A cycle of sickness was perpetuated.
A year later, some of those same factors may come back into play. And if the experts are right about Florida’s recent problem soon becoming America’s collective issue, most of the conditions that led to harm among more vulnerable residents still remain in place. “Just please hold on a little while longer,” the CDC’s Walensky said in her Monday briefing, pleading for governments and individuals to do their parts and keep practicing safe habits. In California and elsewhere, how many are listening?
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