As COVID-19 spreads across the U.S., several states have implemented measures that are intended to achieve social distancing. With few exceptions, states have issued some form of stay-at-home orders. While these stay-at-home orders are working, the varied nature of a large country like America calls for more surgical solutions to minimize the impact of COVID-19.
For starters, one solution does not fit all. New York City (NYC), the current epicenter of COVID-19, has a population density of 27,000 people per square mile. In contrast, our state, Nevada, has a population density of 25.9 people per square mile. In other words, NYC has a population density that is over a thousand times greater than that of Nevada. Even within Nevada, Clark county has a population density of 242 people per square mile. In stark contrast, Esmeralda county has a population density of 0.22 persons per square mile. Social distancing requirements that are necessary in NYC to prevent spread of COVID, it is fair to say, are not applicable to Esmeralda County in NV.
Population density is highly impactful in the spread of this virus. Consider life in a major metropolitan area like NYC. A typical New Yorker takes public transportation to work. You walk into the subway station, you use the handle to open the door. That handle was probably touched by tens of thousands of others before. Then comes the turnstile, the seat, the handles in the train. The list is obviously much longer, and with each touch it is likely the virus gets transmitted from one person to several others. During a normal day, the virus can spread like wildfire in NYC and have little or no impact in Esmeralda county as social distancing is a natural occurrence. To quote, U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), “We have been practicing social distancing for 130 years (in Wyoming)”.
In an age of national news, it is easy to let our decisions be biased by watching the 24-hour news cycle which is dominated by larger states like NY and by metros like NYC. While the virus is the same regardless of the geographic location, the enabling factors for the spread of the virus and the availability of treatment vary widely across the nation. While a large metropolitan environment can spread the virus rapidly, most of the population is within close range of a hospital. On the flip side, social distancing comes naturally for Esmeralda County, but a healthcare center can be hundreds of miles away. Such disparity calls for condition-based criteria (e.g. keep a distance of at least 6 feet) instead of blanket stay-at-home orders. Similarly, focus for rural areas should be around providing quick access to a healthcare facility instead of social distancing. Tailored solutions can achieve the objective of containing spread while minimizing the damage to the economy.
One final point: In a time of crisis, decisions may not be perfect. I think New York Governor Cuomo has done a great job managing a complex situation. So has President Trump. That is not to say that I do not have strong disagreements with some of the decisions made at the federal, state and local levels. Once the crisis is over, there will be plenty of time to review the decisions and learn the lessons. What our leaders need is the ability to make decisions without having to constantly respond to criticism. Barring extremely reckless decisions which don’t self-correct, let our leaders do their job without having to deal with endless criticism in the middle of a major crisis.