After an Early Summer Lull, COVID-19 Cases Surge in the Midwest

A donor gives blood at the Field Museum in Chicago. Photo: Getty Images

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On July 28, National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci warned that the Midwest — the country’s most hazily defined region, and to date, one of its safest during the pandemic — could soon be a hot spot for the coronavirus. Less than a week later, his forecast is coming into view: With COVID-19 caseloads slowly tapering off in recent hard-hit states like Arizona and South Carolina, governors in the heart of the nation are battening down for a late-summer surge.

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker led the charge last week, ordering residents to stay at home save for essential activities, essential government functions, or to run essential businesses. The state has almost doubled its daily case rate from the beginning of July, and is currently averaging over 1,400 cases per day. On July 31, the Illinois public health department also reported a single-day record of new cases, with over 1,900. Though the statewide positive testing rate — a reliable prediction of community spread — remained at an acceptable 3.96 percent, Illinois’s Metro East region outside of St. Louis was as high as 7.8 percent, which is above the World Health Organization’s recommended level for reopening. Due largely to a substantial early outbreak in Chicago, Illinois has the fifth-highest total number of deaths among U.S. states, with over 7,700.

On Saturday, Wisconsin governor Tony Evers made face coverings mandatory for all residents in indoor settings in public places — a decision that governors of inundated Republican-led states, like Georgia and Florida, have avoided, despite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommending masks in public. The state’s positive-testing rate currently sits just below 10 percent. Missouri has the region’s highest testing rate, with 13.7 percent of tests coming back positive. Over the weekend, the state reported an additional 1,500 cases. Ohio, too, has experienced over 1,000 cases per day for most of July, which Governor Mike DeWine has blamed largely on bars. Though he has not ordered bars to shut down, he has banned bars and restaurants from serving alcohol after 10 p.m.

The Midwest’s coronavirus outbreak is still mild compared to that in the Southeast, where positive-testing rates are commonly in the double digits in many states and daily new caseloads are coming in by the thousands. As Florida continues to set daily records, Louisiana has engrained itself as another summer hot spot, which is now leading the nation in cases per capita. On Sunday, the state’s department of health announced a two-day case increase of 3,467.

With outbreaks growing in over half of the states, governors continue to struggle to contain the virus without the benefit of an adequate federal response. Last month, in particular, was a tremendous blow to the nation’s stalled recovery, as 42 percent of our 4.5 million cases occurred in July, and deaths soared to over 1,000 per day for the first time since May. Over the next month, state and local leaders will have to manage the same bevy of challenges, plus the dilemma of students in classes in most states. Such a trial is already playing out in Indiana, where a junior-high student outside of Indianapolis tested positive for the coronavirus on the first day of school on Thursday.

After a Lull, COVID-19 Cases Surge in the Midwest