These are the last 3 counties in America with no COVID cases. How did they avoid the virus?
Nine months into a pandemic that shows no signs of relenting, it seems like the coronavirus has reached into every corner of the U.S.
Well, not quite, but it’s close.
Three counties – technically two and a borough – remain as the lone holdouts, fighting off the virus and reporting no cases of COVID-19 so far. They are Esmeralda County in Nevada, Loving County in Texas and Skagway in Alaska, which uses the term “boroughs’’ rather than “counties.’’
All three are remotely located and have fewer than 1,100 residents, undoubtedly key factors in allowing them to escape a scourge that has sickened 7.9 million Americans and killed more than 216,000.
Esmeralda, with 826 residents over nearly 3,600 square miles, and Loving, with 169 residents spread over 677 square miles, have the smallest population per area of any counties in the contiguous U.S.
Skagway is more densely populated with 1,095 residents concentrated on 20 blocks, but the port hamlet on the southeastern panhandle of Alaska – near the northern edge of British Columbia – is surrounded by mountains and reachable mostly by air or water. Road travel into Canada has been restricted because of the pandemic.
When King County in Texas registered the first coronavirus infection among its approximately 280 inhabitants Tuesday, those three counties were left as the final pieces of unbroken resistance to the virus.
Dr. Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the U.S. has failed to implement the necessary policies to control the pandemic, which helps explain why it has recorded more cases and deaths that any country in the world.
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“The virus didn’t get to all those counties by hopping on a bus. This is being transmitted by humans,’’ Woolf said. “The policies we’ve relaxed have allowed people to transmit the virus, because they’re not wearing masks, they’re not social distancing, they’re gathering in large groups, they’re going to football games, they’re attending political rallies and creating super-spreader events that carry the virus on to a new destination.’’
Even while avoiding the virus, Skagway has paid a steep price. Usually a regular stop on the popular Inside Passage cruise ship route, the borough has seen its economy devastated by the trip cancellations forced by the COVID-19 outbreaks. Not a single ship arrived at its port this year.
Borough manager Brad Ryan said most of the residents are receiving assistance checks from a reserve fund, and the municipality “would be in dire, dire straits’’ if it lost another tourist season.
The additional 1,200 jobs usually created by the influx of cruise travelers from mid-spring through the summer disappeared this year, and along with them the 2,000 temporary residents who normally triple the size of Skagway for several months.
“Life is completely different,’’ Ryan said. “Starting in April, we would have seen cruise ships come in here and 12,000-18,000 people a day walking off the ships and walking around the town. Then when they went back to the ship, you would have seen all the restaurants and bars full of the people that are here working.’’
Their absence did help keep the virus at bay, as did efforts to offer free testing and emphasize the importance of wearing masks, keeping social distance and encouraging those coming in from elsewhere to isolate themselves for 14 days.
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The roughly 100 children in school are attending classes in person but with precautions that include regular screenings, eating lunch in the classrooms and hardly any participation in school sports.
That last preventive measure has been particularly hard, said Ryan, who worries about how the borough will continue to dodge the virus as the approaching cold weather forces people indoors.
“Right now everybody would be going and watching all the kids playing basketball,’’ Ryan said. “It’s a community event everybody goes to and it’s not happening, so people are really missing that social interaction.’’
Folks in Esmeralda County, a mining and agricultural community that borders California on the west, are used to less-frequent interaction. The county’s largest townships house about 300 people, and glitzy Las Vegas is a three-hour drive away.
Depending on where they live in the county, residents may be more than 100 miles from the nearest hospital, making it imperative that they steer clear of the virus.
Esmeralda Sheriff Ken Elgan said the few markets and businesses in the county have followed CDC guidelines, and residents have been wearing masks when going out in public.
Elgan said he hasn’t been running into virus skeptics. If he had, Elgan could tell them about his daughter, a nurse in Louisiana who got infected and had to spend four day in a hospital.
“Our people have worked really hard, on their own basically, to stay COVID-19-free,’’ said Elgan, whose county has drawn interest recently from media outlets. “We all take it seriously. That’s why we don’t have any cases of it. We don’t think it’s a hoax.’’