Virus cases rise in U.S. heartland, home to anti-mask feelings

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FILE – In this April 29, 2020, file photo, workers move bodies to a refrigerated truck from the Andrew T. Cleckley Funeral Home in the Brooklyn borough of New York. During the deadliest days of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, the bodies piled up at the funeral home — and the stench that came with it — at an alarming rate. Cleckley says what happened next made him the scapegoat for an unforeseen crisis — hundreds of COVID-19 deaths a day in New York that overwhelmed funeral homes across the city. Authorities swept in and suspended his license in an episode that made headlines in a city already reeling from other horrors of the pandemic. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

MISSION, Kan. — It began with devastation in the New York City area, followed by a summertime crisis in the Sun Belt. Now the coronavirus is striking smaller cities in the heartland, often in conservative corners of America where anti-mask sentiment runs high.

The spread has created new problems at hospitals, schools and colleges in the Midwest, as well as in parts of the West.

Wisconsin is averaging more than 2,000 new cases a day over the last week, compared with 675 three weeks earlier. Hospitalizations in the state are at the highest level since the outbreak took hold in the U.S. in March.

Utah has seen its average daily case count more than double from three weeks earlier. Oklahoma and Missouri are regularly recording 1,000 new cases a day, and Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a staunch opponent of mask rules, tested positive for the virus this week. And South Dakota, Idaho and Iowa are seeing sky-high rates of tests coming back positive.

“What we’re seeing is the newer hot spots rise over the course of the last several weeks, predominantly in the Upper Midwest,” Thomas Tsai, a professor at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health, said.

Harvard’s tracking dashboard globalepidemics.org has shown an increasing number of states turning red, indicating over 25 new cases per 100,000 population.

With experts expecting a surge in coronavirus cases and the flu as cold weather sets in and people move indoors, Tsai warned: “It’s important to not take our foot off the brakes.”

The U.S. is averaging more than 40,000 new confirmed cases a day. While that number is dramatically lower than the peak of nearly 70,000 over the summer, the numbers are worrisome nonetheless. The nation’s death toll eclipsed 200,000 this week, the highest in the world.

In other developments:

— Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida lifted all restrictions on restaurants and other businesses Friday to reopen the state’s economy. “We’re not closing anything going forward,” the governor, a major ally of President Donald Trump, said in a move Democrats condemned as hasty. DeSantis, who has resisted making mask-wearing mandatory statewide, also said he will stop cities and counties from collecting fines from people who don’t cover their faces, virtually nullifying local mask ordinances.

— Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced he and his wife have tested positive, though he said he has no symptoms. Northam, a Democrat who is also a doctor and usually wears a mask in public, has been criticized by Republicans who say his restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the virus are too stringent.

— Two former administrators of a Massachusetts veterans home where nearly 80 people died were charged with neglect over their handling of the outbreak. They could go to prison if convicted. It is believed to be the nation’s first criminal case brought against nursing home officials for actions during the crisis.

— In New York City, which beat back the virus after a disastrous spring, four Orthodox Jewish schools were closed for violating social-distancing rules. Health officials said if virus cases in these neighborhoods continue to build, the city might roll back the reopening in some places and require businesses to close back down.

Hospitals in Springfield, Missouri, were approaching capacity because of a surge in cases. And in the West, chief medical officers of two Idaho hospitals warned this week that their facilities are close to being overwhelmed by patients infected with the coronavirus.

There were also mounting problems at schools.

In Joplin, Missouri a mask ordinance was allowed to expire last month as virus fatigue grew. The number of positive cases in Joplin and surrounding Jasper County has risen about 80% since the mask order was rescinded on Aug. 17.

People have grown weary after more than six months of virus restrictions in the deeply conservative county that Trump won by more than 50 percentage points over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The mayor of Joplin said he regrets imposing restrictions in March at the start of the outbreak where there were few cases in Missouri, and wishes he had waited until later.

“That speaks to the fatigue because you can’t lock down your community and say, ’Here is the risk,’ and there is really not much risk, and (then) try to do it again,” Mayor Ryan Stanley said. “People get very worn out of the process of trying to grind through that.”

The result is that residents have started to tune out local leaders’ warnings to wear masks and socially distance.

“I am getting sick and tired of telling people to wear their masks and I know they are sick and tired of me saying it,” Tony Moehr, Jasper County Health Department Administrator, said. “And it just seems like people have heard it so many times, I’m not sure if they really even hear it anymore when we say it.”

Outbreaks have become the norm on college campuses around the country since students began returning, and officials worry about new trouble as the football season gets underway. College towns are taking increasingly harsh steps to crack down on parties and crowded bars.

At the home of the University of Oklahoma, the Norman City Council voted 5-3 this week to require that masks be worn indoors at house parties if more than 25 people are present. The ordinance passed over objections from members of the public.

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