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Counties' reopening plans are meaningless without coordination with other counties

Counties' reopening plans are meaningless without coordination with other counties
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Across the nation, counties are reopening schools, restaurants, retail stores and more — hoping that they can simultaneously avoid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

But many of these decisions ignore a devastating reality: Efforts to contain the pandemic will not be effective without coordination with surrounding areas.

That’s the finding of a new study we conducted that was published in the journal Economics Letters. We studied cell phone location data from virtually every county in the country from February to May. Using this, we determined the distance people were traveling and analyzed it in the context of stay-at-home orders.   

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The results were clear: The effectiveness of a county’s stay at home order — or, in other words, the extent to which people reduced their travels — was dependent on whether surrounding counties also implemented such orders. In sum, a county’s neighbor accounted for half the impact of a county’s own stay at home order.

Consider the example of County A and County B — both with no other surrounding counties. If County A implemented an order, and County B did not, the effectiveness of County A’s policy would be cut by a third. But if County B instituted an order, the effectiveness for both counties would increase by half.

Now, imagine that five other counties surrounded county A. If three of those surrounding counties implement stay-at-home orders, and two do not, the effectiveness of County A’s order would shrink by 15 percent. 

These findings have played out nationwide — with devastating consequences. Consider the experience of several counties in Wisconsin. Towards the beginning of the pandemic, many counties denounced COVID-19 restrictions and allowed restaurants and other attractions to open with virtually no social distancing rules. Consequently, tourists from Illinois — which had a stay-at-home order -- crossed the border to Wisconsin in droves. Several counties close to the border experienced sharp upticks in COVID-19 cases.

Meanwhile, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, officials traced several COVID-19 cases to El Paso, Texas, where COVID-19 restrictions are much looser. And officials in Malheur, Oregon — a major place of employment for Idahoans — identified cases originating in Idaho, which is also more lenient.

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The relationship between county coordination and COVID-19 is particularly important as we enter the fall when experts expect a huge surge in COVID-19 cases. The University of Washington recently forecasted that the daily death toll would be just under 2,000 by Election Day. By the end of the year, COVID-19 will have likely claimed the lives of 400,000 Americans — more than double the current toll.

It is possible to avoid these impacts, but it won't be easy. The federal government has essentially abdicated its responsibility to form a comprehensive national plan to fight COVID-19 and has instead forced states to take the lead. As a result, responses to COVID-19 have been inconsistent and haphazard across the board. Local leaders are struggling to get on the same page. 

But they must do so. By coordinating between counties, we can dramatically improve our COVID-19 response — and save lives.

Jonathan Cook is a researcher at OESTE Division of Research & Statistics. Noah Newberger is a researcher at OESTE Division of Research & Statistics. Sami Smalling a graduate student at Cornell University also contributed to this article.