It shouldn’t be shocking: Doing nothing in the face of a highly infectious disease results in high rates of infections. The nation as a whole is suffering from that truism at the moment, as Donald Trump can’t be bothered to leave the golf course for anything other than making attacks on democracy. But some states are being particularly hard hit because they’re getting a double-dose of inaction. In addition to Trump flunking the trolley problem 252,000 times, they also have Republican governors and officials who refuse to pick up the slack.
The result of all this inaction is the absolutely predictable unchecked spread of COVID-19 across the nation. That rising tide of cases has been accompanied by overflowing hospitals, and by the horrifying return of makeshift morgues. On Wednesday more Americans died from COVID-19 than on any day since the first week of May, and unless drastic changes are made, there’s little doubt the death rate will soon exceed the worst days of the first surge. The first vaccines may just be a couple of months away, but Trump seems to be doing everything possible to see that more Americans die in the interval—and that includes blocking all contact with Joe Biden’s transition team.
There’s still a lot of analysis and review to come, but the early data from the Pfizer and Moderna trials suggests that an effective COVID-19 vaccine could be available for healthcare workers before the end of the year. Other essential workers and those most at risk from infection should start eyeing January as a month when a light might finally appear at the end of this very long, very dark tunnel. By spring, the COVID-19 tide could be in retreat with something that looks almost like normality in sight. But all of those things will come faster and more easily if the nation can just stop the unchecked wildfire that’s burning through the whole 2.43 billion acres of the United States.
Just a few weeks ago, it seemed that some other nation might take the COVID-19 bungling crown from the United States, with resurging cases in Europe and a continuing rise in India. But then those other countries did things. Things like restricting social gatherings, imposing mask mandates, and limiting nonessential businesses. The result is that on Wednesday the United States had almost four times as many cases as any other nation. At the same time, America recorded just shy of 2,000 COVID-19 deaths in a single day, with four states reporting triple-digit deaths.
But those states with the biggest numbers don’t necessarily reflect the worst situations. Smaller states are finding their healthcare systems overwhelmed by an incredible combination of disease and denial. Just three days ago, The Washington Post reported on a South Dakota nurse who was caring for patients who were denying that the coronavirus pandemic even existed, as they were literally on their deathbeds. “Their last dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening. It’s not real,’” said nurse Jodi Doering.
Doering’s experience is mirrored in an NPR report that shows that the biggest hotspots for COVID-19 are also bright red when it comes to denial. In a Montana county with one of the highest infection rates in the nation, a maskless man explained it all: “It's absolute garbage," he said. "There has been plenty of proof that the coronavirus 'pandemic,' if you will, links back to Communist China. It's communist Marxism that they're trying to push on this country."
Both of these observations follow a study showing that counties that consume the most right-wing media are the ones where the rate of infection is highest. The highest level of COVID-19 isn’t found where you might expect—in high-density cities, or in areas there there is a high level of commerce and travel. The highest levels of COVID-19 are in small rural counties that listen to a lot of Rush Limbaugh and dismiss the disease as “communist Marxism.”
But for those trying to hang on until Trump suddenly tries to push everyone to get a vaccine so he can take credit for saving the lives of everyone who hasn’t been killed by the final weeks of his term, there’s still more evidence that one thing really helps: Masks. And not just masks, but a mask mandate.
As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports (and this Missouri resident can verify), few politicians can match Missouri’s Mike Parson when it comes to doing diddly and also crap to halt the spread of COVID-19. Way back in April, Parson did craft one of the nation’s weakest stay-at-home orders, but he tired of it so quickly that he raised the barricades faster than even Ron DeSantis in Florida. Since then Parson has been a perfect example of a Trump follower in that he’s done exactly nothing, despite having picked up COVID-19 himself after ignoring all the guidelines.
However, the Democratic leaders in charge of St. Louis city and St. Louis county—the city is not actually part of the county, for reasons that go back a long way—have been willing to insist on mask mandates at several points. And those decisions have demonstrated results. Mask mandates not only reduced the rate of COVID-19 in St. Louis compared to surrounding areas, they worked to “quickly and drastically” slow infection rates. The effects of mask mandates were also “durable,” resulting in reductions that helped over over a period of months.
The study, conducted by St. Louis University, also showed that masks were particularly helpful for essential workers and others who didn’t have the choice of working from home. As a result, masks reduced “the unequal burden” on racial minorities.
It’s worth noting that people in the surrounding counties—one of which would be the county where I live—aren’t going completely without masks. They’re still required in most stores, and common even at those locations where they’re not an absolute. But the difference between “many people are wearing masks” and a mandate where “almost everyone is wearing a mask” makes for a 40% difference in infection rate. That’s because, as with herd immunity, mask-wearing becomes much more effective when it’s close to universal.
Masks will protect you. Even if you think they’re a communist plot.