Experts say the experiment convinced the Midwest of the dangers of viruses

SIOUX FALLS, SD (AP) – As much of the country experiences an increase in virus rates, a halt to a devastating coronavirus outbreak in the Upper Midwest has provided cautious relief to health officials, although they fear that infections will continue rampant and holidays can reignite the worst outbreaks of the pandemic.

States in the northern parts of the Midwest and the Great Plains recorded the worst rates of coronavirus infections in the country in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving Day, extending hospitals beyond capacity and leading to states like North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin reporting some of the nation’s biggest per capita deaths during November.

But in the past two weeks, these states have seen their daily average cases drop, with decreases ranging from 20% in Iowa to 66% in North Dakota, according to Johns Hopkins researchers. Since mid-November, the entire region has returned to levels similar to those of October.

“We are in a place where we control the fire, but it would be very easy for it to happen again if conditions were right,” said Ryan Demmer, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

For a region that was the harbinger of the virus waves that now plague much of the country, the positive direction in the Midwest offers hope that people can mobilize to take precautions against the virus seriously while awaiting vaccines during what experts believe to be the final months of the pandemic.

Governors have used declining numbers to justify their divergent approaches to combating the pandemic, sometimes even justly. In Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz, a Democrat, advocated maintaining some restrictions effective until early January, saying the limits for bars and restaurants are working. In neighboring South Dakota, Republican Governor Kristi Noem argued the opposite, using the recent decline in numbers in her state to argue the mandates of this mask make no difference.

But some epidemiologists believe that the most attractive factor for many who have redoubled their efforts to prevent infections may be that they have experienced the virus on a personal level. As the pandemic spread to Midwestern communities, more people with loved ones, friends or acquaintances fell ill or died.

“It’s the foxhole religion – the whole thing gets a lot more real when the guy next to you gets shot,” said Dr. Christine Petersen, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa. “Suddenly, the local hospital is full and your sister, aunt or grandmother is in the hospital.”

Approximately one in 278 people in the northern states, from Wisconsin to Montana, needed hospital care for COVID-19, according to data from the COVID Screening Project. In cohesive communities, these experiences reach him.

The virus outbreak was so widespread in early November that almost everyone knew someone seriously affected by COVID-19, said Dr. James Lawler of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Health Security Center.

“It seems to bring things home in a way that just talking about it previously didn’t work,” he said, noting that he observed more people wearing masks, in addition to avoiding meetings, parties and indoor meals.

Until autumn, the Upper Midwest had not seen the widespread outbreaks and high mortality rates that other parts of the country experienced in the first months of the pandemic. Many adopted relaxed approaches virus mitigation measures. Republican governors in the region avoided government mandates for wearing masks or other efforts to prevent infections.

Many health experts warned that the region was prone to widespread infections, especially as the climate cooled and people gathered inside, facilitating the spread of the coronavirus.

“As soon as the snowball started, it knocked everyone out,” said Petersen. “We knew this was coming. It was those who took precautions and doubled over who did a little better, but we knew it would be difficult, no matter what. “

Petersen credited the renewed efforts to reduce infections to a combination of factors: warnings from health officials and medical professionals that hospitals were filling; some republican governors issuing orders to wear masks; and the experience of the pandemic. Other experts say that some groups of people, such as those working in meat-packing plants where infections were widespread, have experienced rates of infection so high that the virus has subsided.

But across the region, many fear that success in avoiding the peak of Thanksgiving could be undone by the Christmas and New Year celebrations. Petersen feared that people had decided to forgo Thanksgiving meetings, just to celebrate family celebrations at Christmas. As a Midwesterner, she recognized that it was difficult to resist the draw to reunite with her family on holidays.

“I hope that many of us don’t feel guilty in a few weeks,” she said.


Funk reported in Norfolk, Nebraska. Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.