In the U.S., many aspects of the fight against COVID have been politicized. From mask-wearing to vaccine approval, actions have been labeled as liberal or conservative rather than scientifically proven or not. States’ early responses and current situations are judged according to party affiliation. Following this line of reasoning, all blue states should fare better than red states. However, comparing California, Texas, and Vermont, two liberal states and one conservative, the results do not support this assumption. A closer look at the actions of each reveals what has really led to successes and failures.
California was the first state to issue stay-at-home orders back in mid-March. It also took steps to increase testing and tracing capacity and had strong public messaging. However, economic concerns, public restlessness, and seemingly plateauing cases put more pressure on state officials to re-open. As restrictions eased in May, county and city officials gained more regulating power. The decentralized structure made it difficult to enforce measures consistently throughout the state, especially when officials clashed with each other. Sheriffs in four counties said they would not enforce the governor’s order to wear masks in public places. Many people were anxious to get back to normal and not as likely to follow recommendations like mask-wearing and social distancing.
Cases and deaths spiked in the summer following months of holidays and parties. Some attributed the increase to Black Lives Matter protests, but the data did not support this. The suggestion was dismissed as many participants wore masks and the protests were largely outdoors. Additionally, major outbreaks occurred in nursing homes, prisons, and among migrant workers. Experts say the state re-opened too quickly and focused too heavily on regulating outdoor spaces like beaches and parks as opposed to restaurants and bars. The spike among migrant workers, particularly the Latinx population, supports this. Latinx people are 2.9 times more likely to test positive than whites. They make up a large portion of California’s essential workforce in foodservice and hospitality. Those in these industries are less likely to be able to work from home or stay home if they are sick. Currently, California has one of the highest case counts in the nation, with cases doubling about every 56 days. However, when adjusted for population, California’s rank is lower. The state accounts for 9% of the nation’s cases and 7% of deaths. And increased testing does account for some of the rise.
Despite some people’s belief that the state is turning purple, Texas is still decisively conservative. The last time a Democratic presidential candidate won was 1976. This past election, Trump won the state by 6 points, the Republican incumbent kept his spot in the senate, and 60% of the house seats went to Republicans. While opposites politically, Texas and California share many struggles. Disagreements at the local level, between judges and mayors, over shutting down businesses and enforcing social distancing and mask-wearing played a large role in why Texas’s case count is the highest in the country and the first to surpass one million. Like California, premature opening of businesses and fatigue from staying at home led many to take liberties when policies relaxed. Additionally, Texas also has a large Latinx population who face similar challenges as those in California.
Although Vermont is often thought of as one of the most liberal states in the union, the high profile of its Democratic Socialist senator, Bernie Sanders, contributing to this, it actually has a mixed government. Republican, Phil Scott, has been the governor since 2016 and won the most recent election with 66% of the vote. This makes Vermont an interesting comparison to California and Texas when examining why the state has the lowest infection rate in the country. Some argue its small size and ruralness explain this but, officials in Vermont are quick to dismiss that, pointing to the state’s targeted use of resources for vulnerable populations as the foundation of its success.
Dr. Mark Levine, the state health commissioner, says three things have helped. First, having a healthy population before the pandemic. People there place health high on their list of priorities, making them likely to follow orders like washing hands and wearing masks. The second contributor, shutting down the state quickly. But California did this also, so what made the difference? Vermont did not re-open until officials felt the virus was at a better level as opposed to bowing to public pressure about the economy or isolation fatigue. And when the state did ease restrictions, it did so gradually.
The third and most unique point in Vermont’s plan focused efforts like testing and contact tracing on the most vulnerable populations, including those experiencing homelessness and those living in nursing homes. Vermont paid to move some people living in shelters into motels to avoid overcrowding. It also made meal deliveries, gave hazard pay for essential workers, offered free pop-up testing to vulnerable communities, and Governor Scott has even proposed a $1,000 stipend for those asked to self-isolate. Instead of focusing on curfews or stay-at-home orders, which apply to people that work, it looked at high-risk populations and created policies centered around them and their needs.
While some, including President Trump, have tried to make mask-wearing and case counts political, the science does not support this. COVID does not distinguish between red and blue states. Instead, what made the difference between states’ successes and failures is how unified they are within themselves and how they met the needs of high-risk groups. Although California and Vermont initially had similar plans, the patchwork of policies California attempted to enforce after re-opening led to spikes it hasn’t fully recovered from. Texas also suffered because lawmakers and enforcers could not agree on a proper course of action. And both states failed to meet the needs of vulnerable groups like the elderly, those experiencing homelessness, and essential workers. To prevent higher case count and death toll, states must allocate resources to those that need it most and strongly enforce scientifically proven preventative measures.