Hot weather? Good social-distancing practices? Herd immunity? Or is this just an artifact of a testing gap or the COVID-19 incubation period? Whatever it is, the data coming from both Florida and Georgia has surprised observers who expected a burst of new infections after aggressive reopening policies were put in place, Axios reports this morning:

Our chart compares each state’s seven-day average of new cases from Monday, and the seven-day average from a week prior, May 4.

  • Comparing the averages of two weeks helps smooth out a lot of the noise in how states sometimes inconsistently conduct and report tests.
  • The latest average captures the first full week in which some states began to ease some of their lockdown measures.

Some of the states that skeptics were most worried about, including Florida and Georgia, haven’t seen the rise in total cases that some experts feared.

  • Florida’s new cases have actually declined by 14% compared to the previous week, and Georgia’s fell by 12%.
  • Nevada leads the pack with a 44% reduction, while several hard-hit states that embraced aggressive lockdowns to help contain early outbreaks — Michigan, New York and New Jersey — all saw reductions of at least 30%.

“It’s an encouraging early sign,” writes Sam Baker of the overall trend in the country. More states show declines than states that still show increases, but California’s still in the latter category, and its population swamps out some of the other gains we seem to be making. New York is declining, but that’s a function of the massive spread of the virus early in the pandemic and the inability to impose a shutdown fast or effectively enough.

Also, despite all the talk about regional approaches, the chart shows a patchwork of statuses that offer little connection to either region or reopening policies. South Dakota never did impose a mandatory shutdown and has seen a spike upward of more than 120% in diagnosed cases. Meanwhile, Florida and Georgia show declines after moving to a somewhat similar posture. Minnesota’s cases have gone up 33% while Wisconsin’s have only gone up 1% despite having similar policies in place for similar periods of time.

What can we learn from this, and specifically from Florida and Georgia? Physician and regular reader Dr. Pradheep Shanker isn’t sure we can read anything into it, at least not yet:

Generally speaking, we see a two-week cycle in increased diagnoses and hospitalizations, so we probably do need more time to ensure this trend holds. The point on testing is just as critical; we aren’t doing population-level testing in any of these states, so what we are seeing in general is reporting from somewhat self-selected samples of potentially symptomatic people. As testing expands even in that sense, though, we should see increases in confirmed cases, as expanded testing has produced in Minnesota, not decreases.

This does suggest that reopening might not produce the kind of second wave that epidemiologists fear, or at least we haven’t seen that yet here. We have seen that in other countries, though, including in best-of-class-response South Korea:

Lebanon on Tuesday became the latest country to reimpose restrictions after experiencing a surge of infections, almost exactly two weeks after it appeared to have contained the spread of the virus and began easing up. Authorities ordered a four-day, near-complete lockdown to allow officials time to assess the rise in numbers.

The reemergence of coronavirus cases in many parts of Asia is also prompting a return to closures in places that had claimed success in battling the disease or appeared to have eradicated it altogether, including South Korea, regarded as one of the continent’s top success stories.

South Korea last week rescinded a go-ahead for bars and clubs to reopen after a spike in cases, hours after officials announced the lifting of previous social distancing restrictions and the start of a “new everyday life with the coronavirus.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in warned his country Sunday to “brace for the pandemic’s second wave,” calling the battle against covid-19 a “prolonged” fight.

The calculation has to be a balance between reopening, social distancing protocols, and health-care resourcing. The virus clearly won’t disappear, and just as clearly we can’t hunker down forever waiting for it to do so. For one thing, the economic wreckage will impact our ability to produce the very health-care resources we need to fight COVID-19. That means smart reopening strategies that maybe don’t include night clubs and concerts, but do include limited-capacity retail and personal service businesses that allow people to return to work.

If these trends continue, perhaps that will boost confidence in such reopening strategies, a critical component of our ability to deal long-term with COVID-19. Hopefully we will find vaccines and/or effective treatments for it very soon, but under no scenario will it be soon enough to keep lockdowns in place until they emerge. If we are to survive economically, we have to adapt and overcome — and in that sense, this early data does indeed look encouraging.