These States That Contained COVID Are at Risk of Backsliding, Expert Warns

A top Harvard doctor says this region should learn from recent outbreaks in the South and remain cautious.

In July, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic shifted from New York and surrounding states to Sun Belt states like Florida, Arizona, Texas, and Southern California. But as officials in some of those states—California, for example—took action to retighten restrictions that had eased during reopening, case numbers have begun to flatten. And now concern has shifted once again, according to Ashish Jha, MD, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI). While the outbreak appears to be moving to the Midwest now, Jha says the Northeast, which had previous success controlling COVID-19, has been seeing lax behavior in recent weeks. "I'm worried people in the Northeast think we're done with the pandemic," Jha said in a call with press on Aug. 3.

Jha explained that he feared that states in Northeast—particularly Massachusetts and Rhode Island—are "headed in the wrong direction." States in that region have had lower levels of the disease in recent weeks. But, Jha warns, in no way does that indicate that they should consider themselves free of the threat of another outbreak. He warns that those states should not forget the lessons learned from the post-reopening outbreaks that occurred in the South.

A map of the northeastern United States

A handful of large gatherings and events in several states along the East Coast have drawn criticism from government officials and sparked concern in public health experts. For example, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo said on July 29 that she is delaying reopening plans because people are "partying too much" and not wearing masks. "If you've been partying on boats, your backyard—20 to 25 people, no mask wearing—I'm asking you to stop it. You're the ones putting our state in jeopardy," Raimondo said.

In New York, the large crowds and poor social distancing at a recent "drive-in concert" featuring The Chainsmokers had state health commissioner Howard A. Zucker similarly irked. "I am at a loss as to how the Town of Southampton could have issued a permit for such an event, how they believed it was legal and not an obvious public health threat," he said in a statement. And after a party of 700 people at an AirBnB in New Jersey on July 25, Gov. Phil Murphy issued an executive order limiting indoor gatherings to 100 people and outdoor gatherings to 500, CNN reports.

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In a response to a question from the Los Angeles Times, Jha praised the early efforts of states located in the Northeast, as well as ones in the Midwest such as Michigan, but restated his concern about those efforts dropping off too quickly and severely, as evident in the events mentioned above. "What they did in April and May is what the rest of the country needed to have done, which is really stay shut down until the number of cases really came way, way down," he said on the call. However, in answering a follow-up question from The Wall Street Journal, Jha said that based on state data, "It's very clear to me that these states are heading in the wrong direction."

As an example of the state data Jha is referring to, Massachusetts reported 353 new COVID cases on Aug. 2, a sharp rise from 50 new cases reported two weeks earlier on Jul. 17. The positive test rate has also increased, the data showed. Rhode Island also reported an increase of new cases on Sunday, according to the most recent data. And for more on the status of COVID where you live, check out Here's How Much COVID Cases Are Rising in Every State.

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