Which Governor Could You Live With in the Covid-19 Era?

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem joined Donald Trump’s presidential campaign for a bus tour through Maine in late October and tried carving up her local counterpart’s management of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I made very different decisions than the Governor here in Maine,” Noem told a crowd in Bangor. “I would remind [her] that she overstepped her authority. Governors do not have the authority to put in the mandates that she did.”

Maine Governor Janet Mills pushed back. “The statistics in South Dakota give her no reason to brag, no reason to boast,” she said at a press briefing, pointing out a Covid-19 case rate in the less-populated state that was climbing sharply and compared unfavorably to Maine’s. "I don’t think she’s in a good position to give us advice."

Covid-19 has continued racing across the country since that exchange, tightening its grip. Skyrocketing cases are straining hospital systems and death rates are likely to soar soon, too. The passionate, and often ill-informed, disagreements that greeted the pandemic’s first major U.S. outbreak in the spring never went away, and are getting renewed traction as the coronavirus tsunami gathers momentum yet again.

Every governor has confronted a steep learning curve while battling the pandemic, just like the rest of us. And the zealous scrutiny of their responses — too rash? too slow? too extreme? too casual? — has become the background music for a rich country flailing amid an epic and unforgiving crisis. Resolving this mess has been made harder by how easily some, particularly in government and media, have dismissed expertise, assumed the mantle of authority themselves or simply avoided accepting what’s before their eyes.

“I thought a national crisis would override the politicization of expertise,” says Tom Nichols, author of “The Death of Expertise,” which chronicles the demise of informed debate. “What I hadn’t counted on was the extent to which people had fused their political identities to their criticism of expertise.”

Covid-19 has been with us long enough to provide evidence for what clearly helps in a pre-vaccine world (social distancing and mask-wearing) and where we shouldn’t congregate (crowded spots like bars, restaurants, hotels and gyms). Lockdowns seem to be very useful if they’re targeted, but targets have to be located while contact tracing is still viable. Once the virus gets loose and untraceable, it’s hard to see how more sweeping lockdowns can be avoided, unless you’re a herd immunity acolyte. But deploying sweeping lockdowns as a first response may be unnecessarily draconian. Rapid and reliable testing is paramount.

In an ideal world, governors would share information and best practices and then tailor their responses to meet local needs and navigate political landmines. Even then, Covid-19 is ruthless, devious and hard to bat back. And we’re not in an ideal world, as the spat between the governors shows.

Noem, a Republican who appears to be positioning herself for higher office, was politicking when she criticized Mills and has been working hard to ingratiate herself with the Trumpistas (she recently gave Trump a four-foot replica of Mount Rushmore featuring his likeness sculpted next to Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln.) For her part, Mills has publicly critiqued the Trump administration for its lackadaisical and inept response to a pandemic that has now killed at least 242,000 Americans.

But let’s put those political fisticuffs aside and examine what both governors have actually done — and what’s come of that.

Mills’s office began monitoring the Covid-19 outbreak in China in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last December, and then set up a dedicated coronavirus tracking team of her own March 2 – 10 days before Maine reported its first case. That month alone, she expanded access to local health care, suspended non-essential out-of-state travel by public workers, limited the size of indoor gatherings, issued a stay-at-home order, and locked down public-facing businesses. She’s kept her shoulder to the wheel since then, issuing a mandatory mask order and expanded testing as well. While her efforts added to the economic pain Mainers have endured, Mills won accolades for corralling the pandemic more effectively than governors of all but a few states.

More recently, with Covid-19 resurgent, Mills has ordered quarantine and testing requirements for outsiders, postponed re-openings of bars and tasting rooms, and lowered indoor gathering limits while trying to keep businesses open and schools accessible.

Noem, on the other hand, has dismissed vigorous responses to the pandemic since it first surfaced in South Dakota. She’s ignored recommendations from her own state health department to advocate for social distancing, wearing masks, small gatherings and less travel. She’s declined to order lockdowns and dismissed CDC guidelines, preferring a laissez-faire approach advocated by others such as Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist who is a top Trump adviser. Like Trump, Noem has incorrectly attributed the rise in coronavirus cases to increased testing.

Noem, who ran her family’s ranch before entering politics, has no medical or epidemiological training. But she has pooh-poohed those she describes as an “elite class of so-called experts” trying to stampede individual freedom. She has also used Covid-19 relief funds to pay for an advertising campaign starring herself and touting South Dakota to tourists. One of the big draws she signed off on was the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August. It attracted about 460,000 visitors from across the country, and has since been identified as  a possible coronavirus super-spreader event that may have stoked outbreaks across the upper Midwest. She’s dismissed a study suggesting as much as “fiction.”

So where do Maine and South Dakota stand now?

Maine is home to about 120 Covid-19 cases per million people, according to data collected by CovidExitStrategy.org, a site managed by public health and crisis experts. Its positivity rate is 2.4%, below the 5% threshold experts warn leads to unmanageable outbreaks. It is one of only four states that CovidExitStrategy.org says isn’t struggling with “uncontrolled spread” of the coronavirus.

South Dakota has about 1,438 cases per million residents, making it, by a sizeable margin, the second biggest Covid-19 hotspot in the country after North Dakota. The state’s positivity rate is 54.5%, a mind-boggling number that bodes poorly for how the outbreak will keep unfolding there.

Five hundred sixty-seven people have died from Covid-19 in South Dakota, a 110% increase over the last two weeks. One hundred fifty-nine have died in Maine, a number that has been flat for the same period. (And Maine, with 1.34 million residents, is substantially more populous than South Dakota, with 900,000.) South Dakota’s hospital system is becoming strapped, with 84% of its intensive care unit beds now occupied. The state has resorted to including ICU spots meant for infants to make its total hospital bed count look better. Maine’s hospital system so far has been able to manage the new surge, though hospital workers are reportedly growing anxious. About 73% of its ICU beds are occupied.

Noem’s neighboring governor in Minnesota, Tim Walz, has grown weary of her shtick, noting in a press conference that her approach has imperiled residents in his state. “This one’s a little bit personal because the governor of South Dakota has taken to traveling to other states and criticizing others — now at a time when that state’s hospital capacity is overwhelmed,” said Walz, a Democrat.

Back in Maine, an outfit called the American Patriot Council has added Mills to a list of six governors it believes should be arrested for subverting the Constitution by mandating lockdowns and trespassing on citizens’ “God-given” liberties.

Covid-19 may prove to be so utterly vicious that no governor could have helped fend it off. Even so, if you could only live in Maine or South Dakota right now as Covid-19 continues its rampage, which state would you choose?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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