Editorial: A tale of two states

The Washington Post published an interesting column this Tuesday by Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health in which the columnist noted the rate of COVID-19 infection in South Dakota and Vermont were “remarkably similar” and rated among the lowest three (along with Massachusetts) in the country.

It’s a surprising finding. South Dakota, after all, did not encourage its residents to get vaccinated, the state’s Republican Gov. Kristi Noem pooh-poohed the science on mask wearing, the dangers of COVID, and how to protect South Dakotans. While acknowledging it was no hoax, her working phrase encouraged South Dakotans to exercise “personal responsibility” as they made their way through the pandemic. The rate of vaccination in the state hovers around 50% with at least one shot, far below Vermont’s 82%, most of whom have had both shots.

Vermont’s Republican Gov. Phil Scott took the opposite approach. He shut things down quickly and encouraged an active mask-wearing, social distancing strategy for the first nine months and pushed Vermonters to get vaccines as soon as they were available early in 2021.

So, which had the smartest policy?

First, a few notes of comparison: both states have rather older, White and rural populations; both have comparable median incomes; Vermont has a population of 645,000 compared to South Dakota’s 884,000, both have Republican governors and both have seen steep declines in infection rates over the past two months.

The difference lies in the harm done. While South Dakota’s population is about 27% larger, it suffered far more fatalities and numbers of residents who contracted the disease. Vermont saw just 258 deaths among 24,497 cases (as of this Tuesday), South Dakota saw 125,000 known cases and 2,039 deaths — that’s five times as many cases of the virus and 10 times the number of deaths, which caused hardships and tragedies among thousands of family members, friends and colleagues at work. Furthermore, the lingering effects of the illness for those who recovered could cause medical complications for years to come (and added expenses to the state health care system.)

South Dakota’s biggest outbreak happened just after the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally last August. With little effort to squash the outbreak, the state experienced “the highest levels of infection seen by any state during the pandemic. At its peak,” Jha reports, the state was reporting more than 160 new cases per 100,000 residents. Vermont never climbed over 30 cases per 100,000. By some estimates, Jha reports, nearly half of the people in South Dakota may have been infected.

The good news for South Dakota is that extensive exposure created a sort of herd immunity, which is the primary reason Jha thinks the current incident rate tracks that of Vermont’s.

But the long-term implications for South Dakota remain dicey. With the Delta variant gaining traction and more than half the state without two doses of a vaccine (and no real effort to push vaccinations), South Dakota is at risk for more spikes this coming fall and winter.

Vermont, on the other hand, has reopened its businesses, has achieved near herd immunity with vaccines, and is well-positioned to meet the coming fall-winter with a hearty built-in defense.

Angelo Lynn

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