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Editorial: Do we need to build a wall in Wythe County?

Editorial: Do we need to build a wall in Wythe County?

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This is the last week of May, which provides a good occasion to look back on the month now passing in history.

This has not been a good month for Virginia.

The Virginia Department of Health website shows that Virginia’s virus cases peaked in May and basically haven’t come down. We’ve slowed the spread and flatted the curve but haven’t bent it downward. (We’re relying on the charts that measure the onset of illness, not when those illnesses were recorded — a scientific measure over a bureaucratic one). Likewise, a separate chart produced by the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association (and displayed on the Virginia Public Access Project website) shows the number of hospitalizations has stayed steady through the month.

In some of the most populous localities in Virginia — such as Fairfax County and Henrico County — virus cases have actually been rising, not going down, which makes you wonder why there’s such a clamor to reopen the economy in the midst of a pandemic.

Now let’s look at the numbers in Virginia’s most southwestern counties. We’ll start from the Cumberland Gap and work our way north and east through what are often called “the coal counties.”

During the month of May, Lee County had just one case — on May 3. Lee’s peak was three cases on April 11. (These dates are the dates the case was reported, so the patient surely got sick earlier).

Scott County had just one case in May. Its peak was three cases on April 10.

Wise County had two cases in May. Its peak was five on April 13.

Norton had no cases in May. It’s only had one ever, on April 18.

Dickenson County hasn’t had any cases —ever.

Russell County had five cases. Its peak was two cases on May 16, which also happens to be the last case reported there.

Buchanan County had three cases. Its peak was 10 on April 14.

Tazewell County had two cases. It’s never had more than one a day so there really isn’t a statistical peak there.

Add them all together and that’s 14 cases in the entire month out of a total population of 191,089, a rate of about 7 per 100,000. Now let’s expand our view to look at some neighboring localities in Southwest Virginia.

Bristol had three cases in all of May.

Washington County had 13, with peaks of seven coming on April 11 and again on May 10. We don’t know, because the state declines to release such data, but when we see big spikes like that it’s likely this is related to an outbreak in a nursing home.

Smyth County had two cases in May, the most recent on May 13. Its peak was three on April 9.

Bland County hasn’t had any cases ever.

Wythe County had 10 cases in May, with peaks of three coming on April 8 and May 26.

We’ll stop there for lots of reasons, the most significant of which is this: A study of commuting data published in 2018 found that’s the economic dividing line in Virginia. Beyond Wythe County, people gravitate west. In Pulaski County, people tend to go the other way. So what we have here is a classic definition of an economic unit. Start on Wythe County and go south on I-81. Those localities, and the ones to the west, saw a total of 42 virus cases in May, out of a total population of 318,270, a rate of about 13 per 100,000.

We walk you through these numbers to get to this question: What should be the standard for “re-opening” the economy? In the coal counties, in particular, it looks like the virus is nearly gone — except in Dickenson, where it’s never been found at all. Should the standard be absolutely zero cases? Or should we be willing to accept a certain amount of risk in return for reopening the economy? If so, how much?

In Pennsylvania, which is reopening regionally, Gov. Tom Wolf had set a standard of 50 cases per 100,000 over the last 14 days. All the localities we cited above would easily meet that standard. In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee has set a stricter standard — 10 cases per 100,000 over the past 14 days. Many Southwest Virginia localities wouldn’t meet that, because even a single case would put them over the threshold. However, some would, because their rate over the past two weeks is simply zero. In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam has adamantly refused a regional approach, which effectively means that Southwest Virginia is being held to a different standard than, say, Northern Virginia. In the coal counties, virus rates are almost at zero yet can’t reopen. Will Northern Virginia stay closed until its rates are almost at zero, or will simply a much lower rate than present suffice? We all suspect the latter, right? So why must Southwest Virginia stay closed when its rates are so low? It’s almost as if Southwest Virginia is being punished for its success.

In a letter Wednesday to Southwest Virginia legislators, Northam again dismissed a regional reopening, saying that “this virus does not respect county lines and the pandemic poses a public health risk that no locality is facing alone.” Scientifically speaking, he’s right, but here’s where that logic leads. For one thing, it means states shouldn’t reopen individually, the whole nation should wait and do so at once. Even within Virginia, it means that maybe Virginia should curtail travel between different parts of the state. Set up barricades and don’t let anyone leave Northern Virginia. We don’t hear anyone proposing that. Or perhaps we should set up barricades on the Wythe County line. Let everything west of that reopen but keep out anyone else. Obviously that’s not happening, either, although some might wonder why it shouldn’t. That’s what Gunnison County, Colorado did in 1918 to avoid that year’s flu pandemic.

Northam says “we’re all in this together,” which is a fine spirit to espouse, except we know that’s not how other things work. Otherwise schools in Southwest Virginia would get funded at the same rate as those in Northern Virginia, which they’re plainly not. Perhaps we’ve been looking at this wrong. If having zero cases isn’t enough to allow Dickenson County to reopen, because next door Buchanan County had a single case on May 26, and Wise County had a single case on May 21, and Russell County had two back on May 16, then maybe that’s the standard that should be applied to the whole state. Keep Virginia closed until our case rates are absolutely zero. If that’s not a palatable standard for the state’s economic engine in Northern Virginia, we understand. But perhaps we should start putting up some jersey barriers in Wythe County.

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