New York and Chicago, which saw a surge in coronavirus cases at the beginning of the pandemic, are experiencing a decline in cases and are starting to reopen in phases. But that pattern is not going on in the rest of the country. The high number of cases in Arizona has diverted the attention of lawmakers from the protests after George Floyd ‘s death back to the worldwide pandemic.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has asked members of the Coronavirus Task Force, especially Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, to conduct a meeting for Democratic Senators next week on the increase in cases in Arizona and elsewhere around the U.S., according to his office.
Certain states that have seen a sudden surge in COVID-19 cases include South Carolina, Florida, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Carolina, Mississippi, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Puerto Rico.
Although experts are not entirely sure why these states are experiencing an unexpected spike in cases, they say that removing lock-down restrictions, isolated outbreaks, and virus catching up with previously unaffected communities can all play an important role.
“This virus is much more spotty,” said Arnold Monto, professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School for Public Health. “It is so complicated that when people give you a simple answer to this, it’s probably not right.”
States that have spiked since reopening
In April, the Trump administration released recommendations for re-opening the country, which included a 14-day decline in confirmed coronavirus cases or a decrease in positive tests as a percent of overall tests during that period. Nonetheless, several states excited to get back to work didn’t follow the guidelines of the federal government before re-opening.
The first phase in Florida began on May 18, which reopened restaurants, retail, and museums at half-capacity. Not only did the state fail to reach a two-week drop in cases, but it also registered a rise in cases per day a week before re-opening. According to data from Johns Hopkins, Florida registered 594 cases on May 10. There were more than 800 cases five days later.
Approximately three weeks later, on 5 June, Gov. Ron DeSantis went on to phase two re-opening, even though the 1,000 mark was reached every day and continued to do so for the next seven days. A record 1,698 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed by the Florida Department of Health on Thursday morning, representing the largest single-day rise in the state since the start of the pandemic.
In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee stated Wednesday that the recent state “uptick” to coronavirus infections and hospitalizations was the intended result of the state re-opening a significant part of its economy and urged people to redouble their efforts to avoid the spread of the virus.
In fact, Georgia is not on the list of states where cases are on the rise, said Dr. Jeffrey Shaman, Professor of Environmental Health at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Gov. Brian Kemp was strongly criticized when the Peach State was one of the first states to begin re-opening in April.
Throughout the six weeks Georgia relaxed its restrictions, its curve remained relatively flat. Shaman said this could be due to the efforts of the citizen, indicating that people tended to shelter in place following the lifting of lockdowns. It’s impossible to tell for sure, as there are no clear statistics on how many businesses actually reopened, or what percentage of people still wear masks, he said.
Nonetheless, Georgia Public Health announced the results of 7,684 tests on Tuesday, of which 9.8% were positive, almost double the rate of the previous day, according to the August Chronicle report.
“We don’t want to be totally caught up in a numbers game,” Monto said. “What we need to look at is patterns.”
Coronavirus community outbreaks
Both Monto and Shaman say another reason some states may experience unanticipated spikes is due to “super spreaders,” events, or enclosed community outbreaks. A super spreader is an infected person that can spread the virus to a significant number of people.
“We’ve got a lot of anecdotes and it’s hard to define who a super spreader is, you only know after the fact,” he said.
Some states claim that their rise is due to a local outbreak in confined spaces such as a nursing home, prison, or meatpacking plant. The state ‘s rise in coronavirus infections is attributed by the Texas Department of State Health Services to increased prison testing. According to the Texas Tribune, the number of prisoners confirmed to have been diagnosed with the virus has increased from around 2,500 to 6,900 in the two weeks after the prison began reporting test results on May 26.
Overall cases increased by 34% from May 25 to June 7 and almost a quarter of the rise came from 10 counties with prisons and meatpacking plants. “You have clusters, you have nursing homes, meatpacking and they add a lot of cases,” Monto said. “So that has to be factored in as well.”
The number of coronavirus cases linked to meatpacking plants has more than doubled since President Donald Trump implemented the Defense Production Act at the end of April to force slaughterhouses and processing plants to remain open. More than 20,400 infections were reported by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting in 216 plants in 33 states.
In the United States, some of the highest spikes in coronavirus cases have happened recently in counties with one or more meatpacking plants –Buena Vista County, Iowa; Beadle County, South Dakota; Yell County, Arkansas; and Titus County, Texas, for instance. Over the past two weeks, they have all seen their case numbers more than double, according to the USA TODAY data report.
States catching up to the pandemic
Not much is understood about the seasonality of the virus since it has only been around for the past six months. But if it’s anything like the flu, says Monto, it might come in waves. “I think ‘catching up’ is a phenomenon,” he said. “If you miss the first wave, you catch up in the second wave.”
There’s a decline with the flu in the summer months, Monto says. States that aren’t affected by the seasonal virus in the spring usually see a spike in flu infections in the second wave. Nevertheless, there has been no evidence to support this coronavirus theory. In fact, seasonality doesn’t seem to be a factor, as hot southern states like Arizona and New Mexico are now experiencing a spike.
In Greenville County, South Carolina, the number of positive cases recently increased from 2.9% on 27 May to 9.4% on 3 June, leading public health officials to label it as a coronavirus hot spot, according to Greenville News. Shaman said that the increase may be attributed to lack of social distancing, not wearing a face mask, and other non-pharmaceutical prevention methods suggested by public health experts in the last six months.
“If you look at the protests you can see the difference between communities,” Shaman said. “In New York, everyone is wearing a face mask and others aren’t.”
Although there can be multiple reasons for an increase in cases, Monto said that states should take heed and take proactive steps to avoid a major outbreak.
“The take home message to me is that the virus is still around. It’s everywhere, it’s not going to go away,” he said. “We can’t be complacent.”