Story at a glance

  • Although the White House Coronavirus Task Force gives guidance to the governors, each state has its own policies for COVID-19.
  • This can lead to issues if people are traveling between states for events, which can lead to spread of the coronavirus.
  • The Sunday after Thanksgiving saw the most travelers going through airports since the beginning of the pandemic.

In the U.S., the coronavirus response has largely fallen to the states. Each state is given a report from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, but how it implements public health measures is up to the state’s leaders. Not only has that led to confusion about what to do, it has potentially also enabled superspreader events.

“In some ways, the whole country is essentially living with the strategy of the least effective states because states interconnect and one state not doing a good job will continue to spread the virus to other states,” says Ashish Jha, who is the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, to ProPublica. “States can’t wall themselves off.”

A recent report from The New York Times visualizes the varying levels of containment measures put in place by individual states and the average number of new cases per 100,000 people. The infographics generally show that states that have more containment measures have lower numbers of cases. Most notably, states with the fewest controls have had the biggest spikes in coronavirus cases in the last several weeks.

Public health experts are calling for a more coordinated national approach because people harboring the coronavirus can travel freely between states that may have different policies about containment. That can lead to superspreader events, like the wedding in Maine which led to seven deaths and an annual motorcycle rally in August.

Cases from the wedding event with 55 people were traced to a local community, a long term care facility 100 miles away from where the event took place and a correctional facility 200 miles away.


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The motorcycle rally in South Dakota led to COVID-19 cases in neighboring states like Minnesota, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The state “didn’t have policies regarding mask use or event size, and we see that there was an impact in a state that did have such policies,” says Melanie Firestone, who is an epidemic intelligence service officer for the CDC and is one of the authors of the report, to ProPublica. “The findings from this outbreak support having consistent approaches across states. We are all in it together when it comes to stopping the spread of COVID-19.”


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As a result of each state having its own strategy, some states have resorted to imposing restrictions on people traveling from specific states. For example, people traveling from a state with rising coronavirus cases may need to get tested and quarantine, although restrictions like these are difficult to enforce.

Although restrictions may be necessary at different times according to local situations within states, the experts generally agree that masks do work to limit spread and indoor activities are the most risky. More states are implementing mask mandates in addition to stay-at-home orders in response to spikes in coronavirus cases. Health experts will be paying attention to post-Thanksgiving coronavirus spikes, especially since the Sunday following the holiday had, at 1.17 million people, the most travelers through airports on a given day since the beginning of the pandemic.

For up-to-date information about COVID-19, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. For updated global case counts, check this page maintained by Johns Hopkins University or the COVID Tracking Project.

You can follow Chia-Yi Hou on Twitter.

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Published on Dec 04, 2020