I’ll confess to being a bit surprised when I saw this headline over at NBC News today. “North Dakota and South Dakota set global Covid records. How did they turn the tide?” Given the low opinion most MSM newsrooms have for the red states, it seemed unusual for NBC to admit what the numbers have been telling us for months. Following a significant surge in the fall, both states have seen their total number of cases trending downward and are leading the nation in rolling out the vaccines.
But the article quickly jumps into gear being critical of how Doug Burgum and Kristi Noem handled the pandemic anyway. After crediting the states with tremendous progress, the report immediately turns around and says their success may be “tenuous,” pointing to resistance against government mandates and the “politicization of infection prevention measures.”
Unlike states that had soaring case counts early in the pandemic, neither North Dakota nor South Dakota ever issued stay-at-home orders. Mask mandates, if they came, came late. Yet numbers in both states have come down significantly since the late fall peak, and the Dakotas have emerged as national leaders in vaccine distribution — both are closing in on 5 percent of their total populations’ being fully vaccinated, putting them in the top five in the country.
But beneath the surface, experts fear that the success could be tenuous: Misinformation, a false sense of security and the politicization of infection prevention measures are setting the stage for a possible second surge.
By Halloween, Covid-19 had been ripping through South Dakota for two months. But when Nick Brown, 29, drove through downtown Brookings — the state’s fourth-largest city, near the Minnesota border — he passed a string of bars that hosted maskless crowds. At one bar, a local rock band played for a packed house.
The fact that both North and South Dakota proved more resilient to the spread of the pandemic probably shouldn’t have been all that surprising for a couple of reasons. It’s true that both states saw significant surges for a couple of months after the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August brought more than half a million people into a very small area, but aside from that their numbers have been pretty low. This brings up some uncomfortable questions for the experts in the media who insist that government lockdowns and mandates are the only way to go.
California and New York have posted some of the worst numbers in the nation over most of the course of the pandemic. They are also two of the states with the harshest government restrictions and highest rates of compliance with face mask orders and social distancing. They are also lagging badly in vaccination deployment. Both Dakotas opted not to shut down and facemask mandates came late in the game and were spotty at best. And yet they are back to low case numbers and they’re leading the nation in vaccinations. How do we account for these facts?
The less charitable among us might simply say that government shutdowns and social distancing mandates just haven’t proven to be as effective as advertised. There is certainly some data out there to support the idea. We can’t say that those measures didn’t help at all, but our language includes the phrase “going viral” for a reason. A novel virus against which humans have no inherent resistance is going to find a way to get around. We can slow the spread if we’re willing to sacrifice enough, but without some form of immunity, it was never going to come to a halt.
The other factor that was obviously working in favor of both North and South Dakota had nothing to do with government policy. Both states have relatively low population density and generally fewer people. Neither has all that much of a tourist industry compared to states like California or Florida and there are no major airline hubs or other transportation centers flushing millions of people in and out of the area every day. That low density and comparative stagnation of movement naturally impede the spread of any virus.
Also, lower numbers of people tend to skew the data when measuring the impact of the pandemic. And that’s true in both directions. Let’s say you live in some podunk hamlet with a population of thirty people, one stoplight and a gas station. If a couple of families numbering fifteen people come down with the virus, you’re instantly up to a 50% infection rate, which sounds like the end of the world. But in reality, it’s still just fifteen people. Similarly, if no visitors come to the town for months on end and nobody catches it, your rate is zero. But that doesn’t mean that you’ve somehow magically found a way to “beat the virus.”
As to the success the Dakotas have seen in getting people vaccinated, the same factors apply. A smaller number of people are easier to keep track of and manage. Vaccination pods are less likely to be overwhelmed by crushing numbers of people looking to make reservations and you can spread your share of the vials around more evenly. None of this is intended to take away from the accomplishments of Kristi Noem and Doug Burgum. They’re getting the job done in an admirable fashion while putting fewer restrictions on their citizens. If anything, this is a demonstration of why federal control of both mitigation efforts and vaccine distribution is a bad idea. Each state and region has its own challenges and advantages and solutions need to be tailored to best suit each location.