The delay in the devastating coronavirus outbreak in the Upper Midwest has provided cautious relief to health officials, though they worry that infections remain widespread and that holiday gatherings could re-create the worst pandemic epidemics.
States in the northern parts of the Midwest and Great Plains recorded the worst coronavirus rates in the country in the weeks before Thanksgiving, extending hospitals beyond capacity and leading to states such as North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin reporting some highest mortality in the country per capita during November.
But the last two weeks in those states have seen a decline in the average daily number of cases, with declines ranging from 20% in Iowa to as much as 66% in North Dakota, according to researchers Johns Hopkins. Since mid-November, the entire region has returned to a level similar to that seen in October.
“We’re in a place where we’ve controlled the fire, but it would be very easy to re-ignite if the conditions were right,” said Ryan Demmer, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
For a region that was a harbinger of virus waves now plaguing much of the country, a positive direction in the Midwest provides hope that people can come together and take virus precautions seriously while waiting for vaccines over what experts say in recent months. pandemics.
Governors used declining numbers to justify their different approaches to fighting the pandemic, even occasionally jousting. In Minnesota, Democrat Gov. Tim Walz defended keeping some restrictions in place until early January, saying the restrictions for bars and restaurants work. In neighboring South Dakota, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has argued otherwise, using the recent decline in the number in her state to argue that masked mandates make no difference.
But some epidemiologists believe the most compelling factor for many who have redoubled their efforts to prevent infections may be that they have experienced the virus on a personal level. As the pandemic infiltrated communities across the Midwest, more and more people had loved ones, friends or acquaintances fell ill or died.
“It’s a fox hole religion – the whole thing becomes a lot more real when the guy next to you is shot,” said Dr. Christine Petersen, director of the Center for New Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa. “Suddenly your local hospital is full and your sister, aunt or grandmother is in the hospital.”
According to data from the COVID Monitoring Project, approximately one in every 278 people across the northern states ranging from Wisconsin to Montana needed hospital care because of COVID-19. In closely related communities, these experiences reach home.
The outbreak of the virus was so widespread in early November that almost everyone knew someone who was severely affected by COVID-19, said Dr. James Lawler of the Global Center for Health Safety of the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
“It seems to bring things home in a way that what I talked about earlier is not,” he said, noting that he noticed more people wearing face masks, as well as avoiding gatherings, parties and dining indoors.
By autumn, the Upper Midwest had not seen the widespread epidemics and high mortality rates experienced by other parts of the country in the first months of the pandemic. Many have approached loose approaches to virus mitigation measures. Republic governors in the region have relinquished government mandates to wear masks or other efforts to prevent infections.
Many health experts have warned that the region is ripe for widespread infections, especially as the weather has cooled and people have gathered inside, facilitating the spread of the coronavirus.
“Once a snowball took it all off,” Petersen said. “We knew this was coming. Those who took precautions and doubled up a bit better, but we knew it was going to be hard, no matter what. “
Petersen attributed a combination of factors to repeated efforts to slow infections: warnings from health officials and medical workers that hospitals were filling up; some Republican governors issue orders to wear masks; and the pandemic experience. Other experts say some pockets of people, such as those working in meat processing plants where the infections were widespread, have experienced such high infection rates that the virus has slowed.
But across the region, many worried that success in avoiding the Thanksgiving could be reversed by Christmas and New Year celebrations. Petersen was worried that people had decided to give up gatherings for Thanksgiving, just to have family celebrations on Christmas. As a Midwestern, she admitted that a foal that reunited with her family on holidays was hard to resist.
“I hope many of us won’t feel guilty in a few weeks,” she said.
Funk is reported from Norfolk, Nebraska. Steve Karnowski of Minneapolis contributed to this report.