Lacking a streamlined federal response, state and local governments have largely been left to their own devices when it comes to managing the coronavirus pandemic. It stands to reason that some states would be more successful than others at containing the pandemic, particularly when dealing with hurdles such as reopening, protests, and anti-maskers. So, which states have done the best job with COVID-19?
States that have excelled in this regard—including Vermont, Alaska, Washington, Colorado, and Michigan—have a number of similar successful tactics in common. As President-elect Joe Biden and his newly-formed task force begin to map out a federal COVID-19 plan, there is valuable insight to be gained from this success.
States that have done well in combating COVID-19 tend to protect their elderly, provide relief to workers, prioritize education for low-income students, and administer outreach to minority communities. These states have also been ahead of the curve when it comes to proactive testing and contact tracing measures, as well as implementing statewide mask mandates and gradual reopenings.
Here’s how some of the best and most successful states have managed their COVID-19 response.
The COVID-19 response in Vermont has been arguably the most successful in the U.S., though it could have gone very differently. The virus hit Vermont during the first wave of infections, and the state shares borders with Massachusetts and New York—two of the hardest-hit states in the early days of the pandemic—and has the third-oldest population in the country.
Despite these hurdles, the state is one of the best in the nation when it comes to COVID-19 response. If the U.S. had the same per capita death rate as Vermont, the nationwide death toll would have been just 30,000 as of October, instead of more than 200,000 at the time. The state achieved its excellent numbers by following a coherent, goal-oriented, evidence-based strategy. This is in stark contrast to other rural states in the South and Midwest. Vermont’s success was rooted in several tactics. The state:
- Locked down early and reopened gradually.
- Adopted mitigation measures such as physical distancing and limits on gathering sizes.
- Gave local governments the authority to set their own rules.
- Ensured capacity at healthcare facilities.
- Required a two-week quarantine for people arriving from states with higher infection rates.
- Rolled out a comprehensive testing and contact tracing system from the outset.
- Implemented a state-wide mask mandate early in the pandemic.
“We opened very, very gradually,” Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said in an interview with Politico. “There’s been this line in the sand in the southern states, that you either reopen the economy or you do the public health work to defeat the virus. We’ve shown you can do all of that, you just have to do it right.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, praised Vermont’s response to the pandemic.
“This should be the model for the country, how you’ve done it,” said Fauci, during a briefing with state leaders in September. “Notwithstanding that this is a small state, it should be the model of how you get to such a low test positivity that you can actually start opening up the economy in a safe and prudent way.”
The first reported case of COVID-19 occurred in Washington state, with an outbreak in a Seattle-area nursing home. Seeing the potentially disastrous implications early on, the state quickly devised a plan to protect the elderly from COVID-19.
When Congress handed out a nationwide 6.2% bump to federal Medicaid funds in March, Washington used these resources to provide targeted aid to nursing homes and assisted living communities. The funds were used to help pay for additional staffing, safety equipment, and hazard pay for employees, as well as workers in other industries who couldn’t perform their jobs while quarantined.
“Washington state had a tricky early introduction to the pandemic, which it got under control,” Bill Hanage, professor of epidemiology at Harvard University, told Politico. “It came back again, but the increased number of cases we see now largely reflect improved testing since the spring.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Michigan was hit particularly hard. Black residents accounted for over 40% of COVID-19 deaths in the state despite making up just 14% of the population. By mid-April, however, the state had created a task force dedicated to tackling racial disparities over COVID-19. To date, it has been one of only a few states to do so.
By all accounts, the tactic worked. As of the final two weeks of September, Black residents amounted to just 8% of new cases and 10% of deaths. This is because Michigan:
- Created a task force to address racial disparities.
- Expanded testing to communities of color through walk-in and pop-up sites.
- Dispatched mobile testing fleets accessible to high-need communities.
- Focused resources on vulnerable populations in nursing homes, homeless shelters, and prisons.
- Became one of the first states to test all prisoners.
“We’ve done a lot, and the result that we’ve seen over the last couple of months is that we have flattened the disparity in the mortality rate,” said Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist. “It speaks to the power of focus and prioritization.”
Other states with successful responses
Every state has struggled to pay out skyrocketing jobless claims, but some states have fared better than others by tailoring their approaches to help out of work residents, as well as those facing eviction. Colorado, which already had one of the best records of distributing benefits before COVID-19, notably stepped up those efforts during the pandemic.
To further aid the unemployed, Colorado outlined extensive guidelines to ensure that workers can refuse to return to the workplace if they feel unsafe doing so. These guidelines likewise protect workers who are living with someone vulnerable to the virus, as well as those who do not have access to safe and affordable child care.
Massachusetts and Connecticut have been providing relief to families facing eviction due to being out of work and unable to pay bills. Massachusetts effectively froze all stages of the eviction process earlier in 2020, and Connecticut committed $33 million in rental assistance funds to protect tenants. In turn, this helped protect the livelihoods of independent landlords.
Connecticut also allocated funds to those in danger of eviction before the pandemic, as well as “rapid rehousing funds,” to ensure that the homeless and those getting out of prison could afford security deposits and initial rent.
In the Midwest, Iowa has offered the highest average wage replacement rate in the country, paying out about 50% in lost wages. Minnesota fared nearly as well, with a generous replacement rate that fared just lower than Iowa, thanks to a state-of-the-art unemployment insurance infrastructure that has helped process a seemingly never-ending flood of applications.
Because Minnesota doesn’t have the outdated computer systems found in most other states, it stayed ahead of the curve in the early days of the pandemic-induced recession.