Information in the United States has its course, almost like a river. The source or headline, where many of the news are formed, is the East Coast: the political-economic core of New York and Washington. It is also these two cities, with Hollywood permission, that usually project the image of the country into the rest of the world, and it is their sad scenes of the pandemic that fill the news. Meanwhile, on the other shore, three hours behind and along the Pacific, states that were once the “ground zero” of the coronavirus have another story to tell. The story of how they seem to have successfully mitigated the spread of the virus.
New forensic data indicates that the first two deaths from COVID-19 in the US occurred in California on February 6 and 17. On February 26, a man died in a suburb of Seattle, in the neighboring state of Washington, where 37 of the first 50 deaths in the country would occur. In early March, the landscape was bleak in what was then considered the “epicentre” of the coronavirus in the United States.
“This is an unprecedented public health situation,” Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared on March 11. His administration decreed a state of emergency to ban mass events. A few hours later, Oregon and California followed suit. On March 16, San Francisco, with 40 confirmed cases of COVID-19, was the first city in the country to order confinement.
Against all odds
Predictions in California were tying. The richest and most populous state in the country estimated that more than half of its inhabitants, some 22 million people, would contract the virus in the following eight weeks. The 87,000 available hospital beds would not suffice and the governor, Gavin Newsom, asked the federal government for help against the coming wave. On March 19, California was the first state to decree confinement.
“We will look back and see these decisions as crucial. If they are going to criticize us, let it be for taking it seriously”
“I think it is time to tell you what I say to my family,” a solemn Gavin Newsom told Californians. “This is not a permanent state, this is a moment in time. (…) We will look back and look at these decisions as crucial. If they are going to criticize us, it is for taking us seriously.“
Just over a month later, infections in California are not in the millions. The peak of the spread, contrary to forecast, seems to have been left behind in early April. The official cases of Covid-19 are around 38,000 and the number of deaths, according to data from this Wednesday, is 1,433. The spread in neighbouring Washington and Oregon, with 12,494 and 2,059 confirmed cases respectively, has also lost steam.
The West Coast has managed to “flatten the curve”. Their health systems have continued to function well, with the necessary personnel and equipment, and they have even allowed themselves the detail of sending 1,000 ventilators to the most affected state in the United States, New York, which, with less than half the population of California, It exceeds 15,000 deaths and 260,000 confirmed cases. The federal government-sent ship to the Pacific coast has also been sent back.
Comparisons of affected people, fatalities and political responses to the pandemic between countries or states are too complex, depending on many factors, many of them still unknown. But the circumstances and actions of California, Oregon and Washington have several elements that, along with the early reaction of their administrations, may have been key in the result.
The West Coast is one of the richest regions in the United States. If California were a country, it would be the fifth-largest economy in the world: ahead of the United Kingdom. And it is the US state with the highest proportion of teleworking. Silicon Valley’s big tech companies were among the first to ask their employees to work from home and made their information available to authorities.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has dedicated more than $ 100 million to fighting the pandemic, is based in Seattle. When Governor Inslee enacted social distancing measures, he did so with a prediction model that the Gates Foundation had designed.
The three neighbours, in addition, are among the few states in the United States that guarantee sick leave by law, a measure that has allowed workers with symptoms to stay at home without losing their wages, unlike what happens in other regions of the country.
Public transport and natural catastrophes
Public transport, one of the great vectors of contagion in cities like New York, is not among the strong, for example, in California, a state that has brought car culture to a paroxysm, especially in the southern towns. Each Californian home owns two cars, and the convoluted freeways that surround Los Angeles have remained a testament to mechanized individualism.
California is also accustomed to managing natural disasters, such as the devastating fires of recent years. Their authorities have experience coordinating alarm states and their population in obeying them.
The proximity to China, the focus of contagion, could have been both an inconvenience and an advantage. The downside is that in January alone, some 150,000 people landed in California from China, twice as many as landed in New York. Connectivity that explains why the first Covid-19 infections in the US occurred on the West Coast.
The possible advantage is that from California it is possible to observe more closely what is happening on the other side of the Pacific. Its link with China is strong, both economically and socially. 40% of Chinese imports are unloaded in Los Angeles and California has the largest number of Chinese Americans in the US: 1.3 million. A relationship that may have counted in gauging the risk of spread.
Last week, the three states announced in unison their plans to reopen the economies and “flip the pandemic script.” A step that they will take in a progressive and cautious manner, according to the statement, but that places them well ahead of the other regions of the United States on the calendar of the crisis.
Governor Newsom avoids giving specific dates but is considering reopening California restaurants this summer.” We will have to open things slowly, and change the way we do business.” The decision will depend on several variables, such as the protective equipment available to employees and, above all, the number of tests for coronavirus: the only way to closely follow the evolution of infections to know how to control them.
Meanwhile, some citizens, confined for more than a month, are beginning to show impatience and have already protested in Washington state, including two local congressmen. “I think most people think that (the confinement) has already lasted long enough and it is time to step forward and reopen Washington safely,” said Vicki Kraft, a Republican state congressman. Some 2,000 people demonstrated in Olympia.
Governor Jay Inslee, however, has extended the confinement until May 5. “We can modify some restrictions in the coming weeks if scientific models indicate so,” he said. The prediction models will be ready to review in the coming days.