State Alliances Are Leading the US Fight Against Covid-19
A couple of weeks ago, states from coast to coast were racing to find personal protective equipment and ventilators so their hospitals would be ready for Covid-19. “It was at the height of what seemed like the Hunger Games, everybody out there fighting for their life, people buying orders out from under you,” says David Postman, chief of staff to Washington governor Jay Inslee.
Then a phone call between staffers for the governors of Washington and California sparked what would become a new alliance. It made sense they’d start talking. King County in Washington had the first reported case of the novel coronavirus in the US; in California, the San Francisco Bay Area had the first reported community transmission of the disease. Local governments in both places were early and aggressive in instituting social distancing and stay-at-home measures.
“And then they were having a problem with nursing homes, and we obviously had a big problem with nursing homes,” Postman says. “So we put our teams together. We also connected our testing task forces together.” Like the rest of the nation, the two states—as well as Oregon, in between them—were trying to figure out plans for reentry into the economy.
About a week ago, Postman’s counterpart in Oregon suggested making all these conversations more formal. Over days, an unprecedented regional alliance emerged: the Western States Pact, an agreement among California, Oregon, and Washington to share purchasing power, manufacturing, data, and strategies for dealing with Covid-19 and a potential economic restart. The details of how aren’t clear yet—the announcement press release promises only science-guided decisionmaking to ease social distancing and help the economy while also protecting people, especially in vulnerable communities like those in hospitals and eldercare facilities or among homeless people.
A similar alliance was forming on the other side of the continent, a multistate council made up of representatives from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Massachusetts, also aiming to figure out how to get local economies moving again without risking whatever progress they’d made against infection and death rates that may not have even plateaued yet.
If all that feels more like the opening crawl for a late-1990s sci-fi anime—or the opening salvo of a Cold Civil War?—well, the reality is just as compelling, though maybe more for its political intrigue than its cyberpunk echoes. In the US, by law and tradition, public health is the responsibility of states and localities. It’s also supported by a multitude of private back channels, associations, and academic efforts. The same things that have made the West Coast successful—so far—in the fight against Covid-19 are bolstering a new sort of regionalism at the exact moment that federal policy seems lacking, or altogether absent.
After President Trump threatened to order states to end their shelter-in-place policies (something he doesn’t have the authority to do), Trump said in a press conference on Tuesday that he’d allow states to go their own way. That’s no more confusing than anything else coming from the White House. “We don’t have a national strategy at this point,” Postman says. “We think that the public, they don’t have unlimited patience for these shutdowns. The day will come when they start to push back. I think it’ll help people if they can understand our thinking. We’re not just sitting here waiting for a vaccine.”
Alliances among states aren’t, by themselves, unusual. The Northeast and the West have similar compacts regarding carbon emissions, and in the Northeast, states are intimately linked by geography and economics. Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York have political borders, but residents frequently cross them for work and recreation—or they used to, in the Before Times. And that nexus has been the center of the virus’s spread in the US to date. “If one state opens up— whatever that means—in a way that the other states are not ready to do, it could cause a catastrophe,” says Wendy Parmet, director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern University. “The virus doesn’t pay a toll on the George Washington Bridge.”