When Louisiana found itself unprepared to test aggressively for the Wuhan coronavirus as a proactive strategy to quarantine or treat, the fallback reactive strategy that Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards had to resort to assuming personal behavior will flatten the infection curve. But it hasn’t worked well, precisely because leadership failed to prepare for the onslaught.
Edwards has rolled the dice on exhorting the citizenry to minimize personal contact among themselves in order to break the back of the state’s infection rate that not only stubbornly refuses to subside, but continues to shift higher. His strategy also treats the state as one, despite the enormously higher rates of infection and death in the New Orleans area. This weekend, he pleaded some more for the public to follow social distancing guidelines as directed from his office, saying strict adherence to these could make a big difference.
Not really. It would help, but only to turn a prolonged large disaster in certain parishes into a lesser, somewhat shorter disaster in these. Had Edwards acted differently a month ago, it never would have mutated into a crisis of these proportions.
As a point of reference, compare the change in infections day over day between Louisiana and Washington, where the virus first gained a foothold. For the first six weeks from the middle of January, few cases appeared in Washington but they quickly were identified and suspected contacts were notified to isolate themselves. Unfortunately, the disease got into a rehabilitation center and by Feb. 28, eight cases had been identified through 29 tests, with four deaths.
Counting Feb. 28 as the first day in Washington from which to measure virus advancement, and Mar. 9 in Louisiana when the first case was confirmed there with 6 tests completed at that point, statistics show Washington has done a far better job of knocking down the trend lines. At day 7 for each, the case increase wasn’t too different – 27 percent for Washington, 32 percent for Louisiana, but two weeks in the rolling seven-day average increase diverged considerably. On day 14, that was just 21 percent for Washington while Louisiana’s kept increasing to produce a figure of 34 percent. By week 3, both were doing better with Washington down to 12 percent and Louisiana at 18 percent. Yet Washington’s nudged downwards by week 4 to 11 percent while Louisiana’s ticked higher to 19 percent. For week 5, which Louisiana hasn’t completed, Washington’s fell to 8 percent.
Deaths showed a similar pattern. For week 2, mortality in Washington was increasing at a seven-day average rate of 10 percent but up at 25 percent in Louisiana. By day 24 Washington went into the single digits on this statistic while Louisiana was at 19 percent. By the end of week 4 Louisiana still was at 15 percent, while now just past week 5 Washington is down to 5 percent.
Two things are noticeable comparing the two: after the initial bursts, Washington declined significantly in the next week to open up a permanently lower gap, and it continued to decline more quickly. Washington did well between weeks 4 and 5, so hopefully Louisiana will emulate that this upcoming week. Unfortunately, Louisiana’s sustained bounce up came from having much more potential to erupt higher – the legacy of Carnival as a mass incubator.
A bounce now thwarting the Edwards social distancing strategy, as a review of one measure of this indicates. The company Unacast, which uses cell phone data to increase mobility efficiency for clients, has taken that data to create a scorecard for movement within counties and states. The lower the mobility among users excepting “essential” trips, the better grade the jurisdiction receives for keeping unnecessary contact between individuals at bay, measured by “average mobility” and “non-essential visit” scales.
Overall, it shows a significant decrease for the country as a whole in both since around the middle of March. But, overall, it rates the U.S. as scoring D in both categories. And, most interestingly, the higher per capita states with infections tend to be doing the best jobs of distancing; of the states (including the District of Columbia) today with infection rates of greater than 0.1 percent, these rank first, third, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, 26th, and 40th. Meanwhile, of the six states that drew an ‘F’, none rank in the top half of infection rate.
Louisiana is the 26th, and the pattern from the national level replicates at the county level. The only parish above an overall C grade with an ‘A’ is – you got it – Orleans, home of the third worst infection rate of any metropolitan county in the country and the highest death rate per capita in the country. Ranked fourth in the state is Jefferson, with an infection rate higher than any other metropolitan county in America except for Orleans and those in New York in the greater New York City area.
Observing patterns, in both places around the middle of March both indicators fell dramatically. In a week, Orleans in fact then dropped average mobility around 75 percent and non-essential trip travelling almost 90 percent (both have risen a bit since). Yet both parishes continue disproportionately to represent cases and deaths in Louisiana, with little sign of slowing.
This tells us one of two things; one optimistic, one pessimistic. Optimistically, we can see how social distancing serves as a reactive strategy, that as a threat becomes realized people hunker down, and maybe this can break the viral back in a couple of weeks. Pessimistically, it tells us the barn door was closed after the horse got out, with Carnival in particular acting as so much of an accelerant that without immediate, drastic measures, social distancing only slowly and in prolonged fashion will bring things under control. Given the ticking time bomb that Carnival became and the contrast in results from Washington’s proactive strategy that has produced two-thirds the deaths and only half the cases of Louisiana, a state with less than 60 percent of Washington’s population, the latter interpretation seems more valid.
Edwards and urban leaders like Democrat New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell were caught flatfooted, and there’s nothing that can be done about that now. Social distancing is working way too slowly; it’s not enough to mitigate suffering, protect livelihoods, and save lives. It’s time for more draconian measures to come about in certain parishes to prevent a long, costly, and deadly recovery.