Many COVID-19 hot spots affect areas around state borders, experts say

July 8 (UPI) — Many current COVID-19 hotspots across the country are in areas along state borders because different governments have taken different approaches to contain spread of the new coronavirus, the experts behind the U.S. COVID Atlas said Wednesday.

This includes regions in Arkansas and Tennessee, as well as Louisiana and Mississippi, which are effectively separated by the Mississippi River, they said.

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Parts of southern Arizona and California have also been similarly impacted, according to the researchers.

“With a patchwork of policies across the country, it’s not surprising to see hot spots along state borders,” Marynia Kolak, a member of the team that developed the atlas, said during a conference call with reporters Wednesday that was hosted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In some states, “there have been a lot of mixed messages” from officials, said Kolak, who is assistant director for health informatics at the University of Chicago’s Center for Spatial Data Science.

As a result, the new coronavirus has spread even in areas of states with strict social distancing and mask-wearing measures because they border on states that have taken a less stringent approach, Kolak said.

Kolak and her colleagues developed the U.S. COVID Atlas in March, and the tool has been tracking confirmed cases of the virus across the country since.

This week, they added new “county-level data” for the pandemic that developed out of a partnership with County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, which tracks health and socioeconomic trends for all U.S. counties, she said.

With the new data, the atlas doesn’t necessarily identify counties at risk of an outbreak, but rather those that might be particularly vulnerable should one occur.

This could be due to high levels of poverty, poor overall health and lack of healthcare infrastructure, said Marjory Givens, deputy director of County Health Rankings and Roadmaps.

The county-level data highlights “underlying health inequities,” Givens said.

That includes differences in life expectancy and prevalence of conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and excessive drug and alcohol use, all of which have been linked with increase risk for severe illness and death from COVID-19, Givens said.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, life expectancy varied across the United States by up to 40 years because of differences in overall health and access to healthcare services, said Givens, who also is associate director of the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

The pandemic has served to underscore many of these differences in “Native American and segregated urban communities,” as well as in the so-called “Black Belt,” or poor, rural communities in the south with populations that have a majority of black people, Givens said.

The U.S. COVID Atlas is a free, open-source tool that is updated daily. In addition to historical data on the pandemic, it includes resources for local governments as they plan outbreak responses or take steps to improve overall health in the local communities, Kolak said.

With the new data from County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, the atlas “provides a more detailed landscape of the disease,” with information “previously hidden” by the focus on the national impact of the pandemic and its effects in large metropolitan areas, said Kolak, who worked on a similar tool for opioid epidemic.

“COVID-19 is a national story with a local experience and each hot spot has its own story,” she said.

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