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Other’s opinion: Caution needed on the COVID-19 border battle. It’s early in the game

Star Tribune

Fans in the stands don’t clamor for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the traveling trophy that goes to the winner of the Gophers-Badgers college football matchup, to be awarded to the team ahead early in the game’s second quarter. It’s not even halftime yet, and a lot can happen in the time left on the clock.

A similar, this-is-far-from-over approach is the smart take when it comes to another Minnesota-Wisconsin border battle emerging during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationally, both are among the 22 states where new confirmed cases are trending downward, according to the New York Times disease tracker. A recent report from federal health officials also found both states to be well below the national average when it comes to nursing home deaths per 1,000 residents.

But if there were a scoreboard for key COVID-19 statistics, Wisconsin would be ahead of Minnesota at this moment. It has a slightly larger population, but it’s had fewer cases — 21,926 vs. 29,316 as of Friday morning. It’s also had fewer deaths — 682 compared with 1,280.

And since mid-May, it’s had no statewide shelter-in-place order in effect. A lawsuit brought by Republican legislators challenged Wisconsin’s “Safe at Home” order, arguing that it had usurped lawmakers’ authority. The state Supreme Court agreed, and its May 13 ruling ended restrictions.

So far, it doesn’t appear that doing so has fueled COVID-19 infections. A recent paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) concluded: “We find no evidence that the repeal of the state [shelter-in-place order] impacted social distancing, COVID-19 cases, or COVID-19-related mortality” during the two weeks after the ruling’s enactment.

Calls for Minnesota to be like Wisconsin and lift remaining restrictions are understandable but still premature. It is important to note that while the court ruling ended statewide disease control measures, many of Wisconsin’s most populous areas put health orders in place to maintain social distancing for citizens and businesses, including Milwaukee, Eau Claire County and Dane County, home to Wisconsin’s capital city of Madison.

The state didn’t just open up all at once. Its continued progress in containing COVID-19 may well be due to local officials who stepped in when the statewide protections were struck down. The NBER paper also noted that state residents generally continued staying home after the order was tossed. If that’s the case, lifting the order may not be an economic panacea either. May’s state-by-state unemployment rates aren’t out yet, so there’s no evidence yet that this provided an economic boost.

Another important caveat is that controlling this new virus has been, at best, a fluid situation. Things change and often do so rapidly. If COVID-19 containment were a Gophers-Badgers football game, Minnesota would have been ahead for the first quarter.

Until May 7, Minnesota had fewer cases than Wisconsin, according to a new data tracker from the respected Kaiser Family Foundation. But from that date, Minnesota cases went up dramatically while Wisconsin’s increased at a much slower pace. Our guess: This split coincided with outbreaks that hit Minnesota meatpacking plants hard. Wisconsin also had more cumulative deaths than Minnesota through April 29.

Reminders of how quickly COVID-19 containment can change came from elsewhere across the country this week. There are now alarming increases in cases in states such as Arizona, Utah and Texas that had so far escaped widespread illness. Those states were early “reopeners,” with Arizona significantly easing restrictions May 16 and with Utah and Texas on May 1.

The recent protests following George Floyd’s death adds another layer of volatility to reopening decisions. In an interview with an editorial writer, Dr. Nasia Safdar, an infectious disease specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, cautioned against applying one state’s experience — good or bad — to another because so much remains unknown about this virus.

This is a time to err on the side of caution, not get overconfident so early in the matchup against COVID-19. There’s still a long way to go before this virus is under control.