COVID-19 continues its ever-changing U.S. onslaught

By Mitch Smith and Monica Davey

COVID-19 has proved itself an unpredictable and ever-changing threat. As President Donald Trump and some of his allies and associates test positive for the coronavirus, the number of new cases reported each day across the United States has been slowly rising. The nation’s response has been uneven and inconsistent.

Here is where the country is now.

The U.S. is at a key moment in the pandemic.

Spread of the virus could worsen significantly through the autumn, experts fear, as colder weather forces people indoors. Winter, paired with a new flu season, could make the precarious situation of today even worse. Every day, some 43,000 new cases are being reported — far fewer than were being identified during the surge in the summer but still an uncomfortably large number.

From the hospital where Trump is being treated, he wrote on Twitter on Saturday, “Tremendous progress has been made over the last 6 months in fighting this PLAGUE.”

But the pace has been ticking upward slowly since the middle of September as the virus reached parts of the country that hadn’t been hit hard before. By this weekend, 7.3 million people in the United States — some of them at the highest reaches of the federal government — were known to have been infected. More than 208,000 people have died.

The Great Plains, spared early on, is struggling now.

Some of the country’s least populous states are now seeing its highest infection rates.

When coastal cities suffered in the spring, cases remained relatively scarce across most of the Northern Plains and rural West. But since late summer, North Dakota and South Dakota have added more cases per capita than any other state. Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana have set troubling records as well.

In North Dakota, state officials met with hospital executives recently to ensure there would be enough space in hospitals as cases surged around Bismarck, and health care workers said they were working overtime to meet the sudden rise. Leaders in Montana urged residents to take precautions as they warned of an uncertain new phase.

“COVID-19 is still in our midst — more so than we’ve ever seen before since this virus first entered our state,” Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, a Democrat, wrote on Twitter the other day. “If public health guidelines are followed, like masking up and social distancing, we can prevent the strain on our hospitals.”

Wisconsin’s situation has become alarming.

Northeastern Wisconsin, a politically mixed region that also happens to be crucial to both parties’ hopes of winning the presidency, is facing one of the country’s most widespread, uncontrolled outbreaks right now.

By Saturday, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., announced that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Three of the four U.S. metro areas with the most recent cases per capita were in northeastern Wisconsin, with the Oshkosh area faring worst of all.

“I’m honestly not sure that anything we do right now will make a difference,” the mayor of Oshkosh, Lori Palmeri, said recently. “It’s too late.”

Across Wisconsin, warning signs mounted with few glimmers of progress. More than 3,000 new cases were announced in the state in a single day for the first time. The state set single-day records for deaths and hospitalizations. Its test positivity rate reached 20%, a loud signal that the outbreak in the state has spun of control.

“We need to stop the spread,” said Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, a Democrat, “and that means people need to start staying home whenever possible.”

Colleges are driving tens of thousands of new cases.

When college students returned to campuses for the fall, the coronavirus followed. University towns that had relatively few cases suddenly became hot spots. Clusters emerged in dorms, in fraternity and sorority houses, on sports teams. And in many places, in-person classes and parties and football games continued.

The New York Times has identified more than 130,000 cases at more than 1,300 U.S. colleges since the pandemic began, including tens of thousands of infections reported in September. Although many of the cases in college-age students are relatively mild, there have been tragic outcomes as well. A football player at California University of Pennsylvania and a sophomore at Appalachian State have died after contracting the virus.

Some schools, especially in small towns, have held infections to a minimum, by aggressively enforcement social distancing and by testing extensively. But new campus outbreaks continued to crop up this past week. Officials at Franklin College in Indiana said Friday that classes would temporarily move online after 15 athletes tested positive. In Ohio, Defiance College shifted abruptly to online work this past week after about 10% of the people on its campus tested positive.

Richanne C. Mankey, Defiance’s president, said the college had been following local and federal health standards.

“Unfortunately,” Mankey said in a statement, “one breach can have significant consequences.”

Some of the worst trouble spots have calmed.

Misery in the Sun Belt has receded, helping to hold down the nation’s new case growth despite increases in the Midwest and West.

Summer outbreaks sent national case tallies soaring to more than 66,000 a day by late July. Arizona, California and Florida reported records, then broke them, day after day. In some cities, officials shut down bars again and demanded that residents wear masks.

Florida is now averaging about 2,300 new cases a day, roughly one-fifth of what it was seeing at its worst. In Arizona, where overtaxed hospital capacity was once a concern, intensive care beds are now plentiful, and daily case reports have dropped to about 500 on average, down from more than 3,600. New infections have also plunged in California, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina. Mississippi, Texas and Alabama have made significant progress since midsummer as well, although case numbers there remain persistently high.

America’s effort to stop the virus is a dizzying patchwork.

The nation’s effort to stop the coronavirus remains a constantly shifting amalgam of state and local rules. And that has meant starkly different realities from state to state, and from county to county.

More than six months since some governors first ordered businesses to close and residents to stay home, there remains no national consensus on what should be open. In some places, schools are closed, masks are required by law and indoor dining is sharply limited. In others, life appears to be almost back to normal: Fans fill bleachers for high school football, masks are just a suggestion and businesses have been wide open for months.

The battles over what approach is best are still being argued in the public, in state capitals and in the courts. On Friday, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has been exceeding her authority for months by issuing executive orders aimed at slowing the virus’ spread. Hours before the ruling was announced, Whitmer had imposed new restrictions on businesses in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where new infections have surged in recent days.

“The governor had no right to extend the state of emergency over the Legislature’s objection,” Lee Chatfield, the Republican speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, said on Twitter. “Our Constitution matters, and this was a big win for our democratic process.”