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Editorial: Why is Roanoke's virus rate spiking?

Editorial: Why is Roanoke's virus rate spiking?

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Roanoke didn’t have a good summer, virus-wise, but we’re now having an even worse autumn. Will Halloween this weekend turn into a series of miniature super-spreader events?

Let’s review the data.

Back in the spring — remember the spring? — we thought we had this beat. Roanoke’s cases peaked at an average of 6.9 per day May 3 and then dropped. When we came out of Memorial Day weekend we were averaging just 1.7 cases of COVID-19 being diagnosed each day — and some days we didn’t have any. But, as we know now, all those Memorial Day weekend parties, and all those trips to Myrtle Beach, and all those other things we just couldn’t do without wound up spreading the virus. Cases rose through the summer, until we hit a high of 26.6 by Aug. 7.

Then that spike passed. Going into Labor Day weekend, we were down to an average of 6.4 cases per day on Sept. 4. That was about the same size as the May spike, but seemed something of a great victory considered where we had been. We were, for the second time, flattening the curve. Then we let it get away from us yet again.

Our rates have been rising ever since then. On Monday, our seven-day average hit 44.3 cases per day — the highest it’s ever been. (As of Wednesday, it had dipped to 41.9). Either way, that’s almost seven times higher than it was less than two months ago and 24 to 26 times higher than it was around Memorial Day. Logically speaking, whatever precautions we were taking in May — well, we should be 24-26 times more diligent now. Are we?

Roanoke now has one of the highest infection rates in the state. Not to be alarmist, just factual, we have a rate that’s higher than most of the rest of the world. Here are the particulars: The standard way to compare rates is on a rate per 100,000 population basis. Roanoke’s rate is 2,773 per 100,000. The Virginia Department of Health website shows only nine localities in the state that are higher. Montgomery County’s rate is 2,816 and most of the others are in about the same range — all just under 3,000. Galax is an outlier, and the state’s highest rate, at 6,974.

The national rate is now 2,687, so Roanoke and Montgomery County are both somewhat higher than the U.S. rate. There are certainly places in the country worse off. The Centers for Disease Control shows 21 states have rates higher than Roanoke. North Dakota is the highest at 5,148, followed by South Dakota at 4,505 The lowest rates are in Vermont at 333 and Maine at 472, so there’s obviously quite a range — so we might want to be asking why that is. It’s not because Vermont and Maine are small and rural, because the Dakotas are rural, too. It’s not even obviously political, because the states with the highest and lowest virus rates both have Republican governors.

In any case, here’s even wider context: The United States — at 2,687 cases per 100,000 — has one of the highest rates in the world. In fact, our rates are more comparable to those in some developing nations than it is to our counterparts in other industrialized nations. Since the Roanoke and U.S. rates are about the same, that why we’re able to say — although not with any pride — that Roanoke has an infection rate that’s higher than those in most countries in the world.

The actual numbers: First, let’s start with Canada and Mexico because they’re right next door. Mexico’s rate is 714 per 100,000. Canada’s rate is 609 — one of the lowest in the world. Why is our rate 4.4 times higher than a country with whom we share a border? We can blame President Donald Trump for some of this — for not taking the steps that some other nations have, for not taking masks seriously, for undermining the messages of public health officials — but we can’t blame him for everything. He’s as much president of Vermont as he is president of North Dakota. At some point, we have to conclude that a lot of Americans — and, by deduction, a lot of Roanokers — simply aren’t taking the virus seriously while Canadians and Mexicans are.

The Roanoke rate — and the U.S. rate — is higher than all but two countries in Europe. The only two higher are Belgium at 3,041 and Montenegro at 2,746. France is at 1,800. Great Britain is at 1,380. Germany is way down at 569. Norway is at 356. Finland is at 279. Latvia has Europe’s lowest rates at 267. When we look around the world we see Australia even lower at 110 and New Zealand at 40. Once again, we must ask why we are so much higher than all these other countries. Perhaps Australia and New Zealand aren’t fair comparisons because they’re islands although with so many borders closed we’re essentially an island. Still, we notice this: Some of these countries are led by conservatives; some are led by liberals. Politics don’t seem to matter but personal behavior does.

So where do Roanoke and the U.S. rank? Roanoke’s rate of 2,773 — and the over U.S. rate of 2,687 — is in line with Armenia (2,800), Peru (2,790), and Chile (2,699). Is that the company we want to keep? If so, we should keep right on doing what we’re doing, but if we want to lead the world in the way we claim we want to, then we need to make some changes in how we’re doing things. Are we strong enough to do that? This a national character test and right now we’re failing. Even Trump’s chief-of-staff, Mark Meadows, has essentially given up, although Trump says he hasn’t.

Halloween is coming up. How should we handle that? The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages lots of activities other than going trick-or-treating. Among them: “Meet with friends virtually and show off costumes.” If you absolutely have to go trick-or-treating, “families should be careful to avoid groups or clustering at doorsteps or at any other place.” The AAP advises those handing out treats to “consider sitting outdoors” — and wear a mask. (A real mask, not a costume mask because those don’t offer the same protection). Don’t let kids root around in a bowl — hand out “individually pre-packaged treat bags.” Further the AAP advises parents “if your child collects treats from a few, socially distanced neighbors, you may want to wipe the packages with a sanitizing cloth or let them sit for a couple of days before the child can access them.”

Yes, this is different. Yes, this isn’t as much fun. But neither is the coronavirus. Previous generations found it in themselves to make the sacrifices necessary to defeat the Nazis. We should able to at least wear a mask, wash our hands and keep our distance.

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