The deadly cost of uncoordinated reopening of our states

The deadly cost of uncoordinated reopening of our states

Last week, Dr. Rick Bright, former deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response and director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, testified that without a comprehensive national coronavirus response plan the COVID-19 pandemic will create "the darkest winter in modern history."

Lacking comprehensive federal guidance, states are adopting policies that do not move in lockstep with one another. And while some states are coordinating on COVID policy at the level of “mega-regions,” most, unfortunately, are not. This lack of coordination could have devastating effects in lives lost and squandered efforts to control COVID-19. 

When Georgia governor Brian Kemp reopened the state’s businesses, for example, half a million out of state visitors flocked to Georgia to patronize bars, restaurants, and barbershops that were closed in their own states. Researchers at the University of Maryland estimated that Georgia’s reopening prompted a 13 percent increase in out of state visitors, with 62,000 additional people coming into Georgia from surrounding states every day.

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At the end of April, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker (D) and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds took opposing stances on their states’ pandemic responses. On April 23rd, Pritzker extended Illinois' stay-at-home order. The very next day, Reynolds said Iowa would “start and be able to responsibly open Iowa back up.” As Lorrie Beaman, the executive director of Davenport Iowa’s Freight House Farmers Market told NBC News, “that’s a problem. We’ve seen that from early on when Illinois people were coming over to golf at the Iowa golf courses. They’ll be over here shopping at our market.”

As the national debate between a coordinated national policy and ad hoc, state-by-state responses takes center stage, and as federal, state and local governments begin opening businesses and relaxing shelter-in-place orders worldwide, we must understand and consider how policies in one region affect mobility and social distancing in other regions.

Today, our team in the Social Analytics Lab at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy released a comprehensive study of the cost of uncoordinated responses to COVID-19. Our models combined daily, county-level data on shelter-in-place policies with movement data from over 27 million mobile devices, social network connections among 220 million Facebook users, daily temperature and precipitation data from 62,000 weather stations and county-level census data on population demographics to estimate the geographic and social network spillovers created by regional policies across the United States.

Our analysis showed the contact patterns of people in a given region are significantly influenced by the policies and behaviors of people in other, sometimes distant, regions. When just one-third of a state's social and geographic peer states adopt shelter in place policies, it creates a reduction in mobility equal to the state's own policy decisions. When states fail to coordinate in the presence of these spillovers, total welfare is reduced by almost 70 percent. These results suggest a substantial cost of uncoordinated government responses to COVID-19 when people, ideas, and media move across borders.

Our research not only assesses the impact of an uncoordinated reopening but also gives governors a map with which to coordinate in the absence of national guidance. We show, for all fifty states, which states affect each other the most and thus map the states that should be coordinating.

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These maps are sometimes surprising because, as a result of digital social media, each state's success with social distancing is impacted by the policy decisions not just of geographically proximate states, but also of socially connected, but geographically distant states.

For instance, in our data, Florida's social distancing was most affected by New York implementing a shelter-in-place policy due to the digitally-mediated social influence and travel between the states, despite their physical distance. New Hampshire had a strong influence on adjacent Massachusetts, despite being a small state. This highlights the need for states across the country to coordinate, even if they are not near one another and our results suggest which states should be coordinating with which other states based on the strength of spillovers between them.

As the world begins to reopen, our research suggests this effort should be tightly coordinated across states, localities and nations. National governments must take a leadership role in coordinating the reopening and the continued response to the pandemic. The need for heterogenous pandemic responses and reopening plans across localities is clear — different regions have different circumstances and different infection rates and thus require different responses.

But, the need to coordinate these heterogeneous responses is also clear. Managing the geographic and social spillovers created by an interdependent pandemic requires an interdependent response. The responsibility for states, localities and nations to respond to this pandemic in lockstep lies with national governments. It is a responsibility they must not abdicate. 

Sinan Aral is the director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of the upcoming book “The Hype Machine” about how social media disrupts our elections, our economy and our public health.