America’s coronavirus epidemic is less a single war than a series of local or regional battles that have shifted across the country.
A USA TODAY analysis shows early northern hot spots like New York City, Seattle and Chicago tempering their epidemics since April, while an intense set of outbreaks began to surge across America’s Sunbelt starting in May.
Although the recent rapid growth in the South and Southwest has been well documented, new mapping by the news network provides an unusually vivid portrait of the stark shift in the pandemic’s hottest spots.
Of course, big flareups have hit nearly all parts of the country throughout the crisis.
America hasn’t been facing one coronavirus outbreak; it’s been facing hundreds, spread across time and communities.
Those patterns pop out on maps that visualize COVID-19 hot spots.
At the beginning of the pandemic, COVID-19 outbreaks were surging in the Northeast. That’s changed in recent weeks.
While Americans were talking about outbreaks in Seattle and New Orleans in late March, intense outbreaks were bursting through communities in Colorado and southwest Georgia.
By the end of April, intense outbreaks were sweeping communities in Mississippi, Georgia, Iowa and eastern North Carolina. Communities in a swath from Amarillo, Texas, to St. Cloud, Minn., unconnected by a major highway, were hit hard.
But some of the biggest numbers of people affected by the coronavirus were in major northern populations centers. That’s changed in roughly the past six weeks.
Early in the pandemic, President Donald J. Trump repeatedly suggested the coronavirus would not fare well with heat and would go away with summer temperatures. Instead, the virus is blasting through some of America’s hottest locations.
The coronavirus began rampaging through Sunbelt states soon after they opened in late May and early June. In about a month, Florida’s case positivity rate quadrupled, daily new cases increased from about 1,000 to about 8,000, hospitalizations more than doubled and deaths began trending upward, data from Johns Hopkins University and the Covid Tracking Project show.
In Arizona, busy bars may have helped fuel an intense spread of coronavirus. The daily counts of new cases in Arizona, with about 7.3 million people, now rival those of the European Union, with about 450 million people.
And the Arizona numbers are likely undercounts. About 26% of the state’s test results come back positive, a strong indication that testing is not widespread. The World Health Organization recommends a level of testing where positives make up only 5% of the results.
Some of the biggest new health threats are in America’s most populous states. Texas went from 1,700 newly reported cases per day to 7,500 in four weeks. California leaped from 2,900 to 7,700 new daily case reports.
Texas is now closing bars and stopping other reopenings as its hospital beds fill.
In California, patients from overwhelmed hospitals in southern California are now sending patients to be treated near San Francisco.
Watch coronavirus hot spots shift south
The Northeast, and particularly New York City, was hit hard by COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic. By mid-June, the number of new coronavirus cases per capita had begun to surge in southern states.
Matthew Fox, a professor of epidemiology and global health at Boston University School of Public Health, said it’s too early to tell how some of the Southern states may fare. Many of the new cases are among younger people less likely to have serious effects from COVID-19. But some of them will pass that on to more vulnerable people. If the Southern states can protect those in the most danger, especially those 80 or older, they can limit the death toll.
“If the Sunbelt states can manage to really protect the nursing homes the impact really won’t be as bad even as the case counts go up,” said Fox.
Fox said the Northeast got a better handle on the coronavirus with fairly strong lockdowns, people getting concerned enough to become cautious, contact tracing and other efforts.
“Any infection that you can prevent is going to prevent further infections,” he said.
Share of daily new cases reported by each US region
The share of cases reported by northern states has declined as the share of cases in the South and West has increased.
Sunbelt states already trying to deal with fast-growing coronavirus counts are also among those scheduled to open schools soon.
“If effective plans are not in place then transmission is going to start to reoccur,” Fox said.
And while serious effects are relatively rare among children, they can bring coronavirus infections home from school.
“Everything that we do now is really about keeping everything open as we move into the fall and minimizing the impact. Everything is going to change when schools start to reopen, and so we want to be in the best possible position to sustain those reopenings.”