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If you want to know why coronavirus is spiking in the US, compare Florida with Illinois

The two states took two very different approaches — and now Floridians are paying with their lives

Noah Berlatsky
Monday 17 August 2020 22:59 BST
Coronavirus in numbers

Coronavirus numbers in the United States over the last week have been terrifying. Cases have been rising precipitously throughout the country: Ohio, Louisiana, and Tennessee have all averaged more than 1,000 new cases per day. Georgia has averaged more than 3,000 per day. California is over 8,000. Texas and Florida are both over 9,000. And Florida in particular appears to be accelerating: on Sunday it reported 15,300 new cases in one day, a record for any state in the US, and on Monday it was almost 13,000.

The spike in cases is not just a result of more testing; percentage of positive tests has also been increasing. In the last month Arizona's positive test rate went from 12.7 percent to 26.8 percent; Florida's went from 4.1 percent to 19.1 percent.

While the infection rages out of control in Florida, Texas, and Arizona, though, other parts of the country have had real successes in fighting Covid. In particular, a quick, coordinated, and sustained response in my own state of Illinois has quietly but decidedly reduced case numbers and deaths.

Illinois' achievement is both a model and an accusation. It points a way forward for other states. It also shows that the disaster facing the country now was thoroughly preventable.

State officials in Illinois have managed to contain the virus by acting early, aggressively, and imaginatively. In mid-March, with only about 100 cases in the state, Chicago's Mayor Lori Lightfoot cancelled the annual St Patrick's Day Parade, and Governor J B Pritzker closed schools. He delivered a shelter-in-place order on March 20.

At the same time, before the the caseload had reached crisis levels, Pritzker brought in proactive measures to increase healthcare capacity. He called retired doctors and nurses to return to work. He also ordered McCormick Place convention center to be converted into a 3,000-bed field hospital — a step that proved unnecessary, but which shows how seriously he took the crisis. The state worked ceaselessly to increase testing, and by early June had enough capacity that anyone in the state concerned about their Covid status could get a test. From less than 10,000 tests a day in April, the state now tests almost 40,000 people daily.

Public officials in Illinois have also been consistent in telling the public that the virus is serious, and in urging people to take precautions. In my own mostly working-class northwestside Latinx neighborhood, these warnings seem to have been effective. In grocery stores and pharmacies, everyone wears masks. Businesses have installed plastic shields at registers to protect workers. When walking outside, most people responsibly social distance.

This isn't to say that every aspect of Illinois' response has worked perfectly. The state went ahead with its March primary election rather than postponing it, a controversial decision which may have led to unnecessary deaths. Illinois has done little to release vulnerable prisoners. Officials' failures there were responsible for sparking one of the worst Covid outbreaks in the country in Cook County Jail.

Nor did Illinois escape a serious outbreak. The state never posted New York numbers, but in mid-May, 191 deaths were reported in a single day. Overall, more than 7,000 people have died. In April and May, the state was regularly reaching more than 2,000 new cases a day, with a high of more than 4,000.

That makes it more impressive that the state has managed to get the outbreak under control. Even as restaurants and bars have begun to cautiously reopen and increased testing is in place, new cases in the state are hovering around 1,000 per day. Deaths in the last few days have been in the 20s. Those are the lowest numbers since the beginning of the outbreak in March.

Pritzker's aggressive, multi-pronged efforts to promote masking, social isolation, testing, and healthcare capacity stands in sharp contrast to the actions of governors like Florida's Ron DeSantis. In March, while Pritzker was closing schools and businesses, DeSantis left stay-at-home orders to local authorities, despite a rapidly rising caseload. Since then he's consistently downplayed dangers from the virus, even as cases have spiked over the last week. Disney World is reopening, just as many hospital report they have already run out of ICU beds. And deaths are slowly but ominously creeping up. Florida hit a one-day record high of 120 deaths from Covid on July 9.

Illinois' numbers could climb again too. Coronavirus hasn't been eliminated in the state by any means. Relaxing stay-at-home orders is a risk. And there's a limit to what local officials can do as long as the federal response remains catastrophically inadequate.

Still, Pritzker has shown how much can be done statewide despite Trump's malevolent incompetence. Illinois has not done everything perfectly. But there's no doubt Pritzker has saved hundreds and perhaps thousands of lives. He's largely done the right thing for his constituents. In the coming weeks, I fear we'll see how badly DeSantis and other governors have failed theirs.

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