For this story, reporters interviewed a wide range of health researchers, public officials and academic experts to ask them which states were standouts in their management of the pandemic. What we heard repeatedly were lessons culled from a handful of states that others could follow.
We’ve distilled their insights into three categories that represent the greatest challenges states are facing: fighting the virus, managing the economic fallout and reopening schools.
FIGHTING THE VIRUS
Leading the way in the rural Northeast
Few states have a record as unblemished as Vermont.
The odds could have been stacked against the state. The virus arrived in Vermont during the first wave sweeping the country. It shares borders with some of the hardest-hit states and has the third-oldest population in the country.
But Vermont swiftly flattened its initial wave and has since gone weeks at a time without any new confirmed infections. Fewer than 60 people have died, giving the state the second-fewest deaths per capita behind Alaska, which has seen surging caseloads in recent weeks. If the country as a whole had the same per capita death rate as Vermont, the nationwide death toll would be 30,000 instead of more than 215,000.
“This should be the model for the country, how you’ve done it,” Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said during a briefing with state leaders in September. “Notwithstanding that this is a small state, it should be the model of how you get to such a low test positivity that you can actually start opening up the economy in a safe and prudent way.”
While health experts say the state has likely benefited from its rural geography, other sparsely populated areas of the country that let their guard down were overwhelmed by the virus this spring and summer. That sense of complacency never took hold in Vermont, where a moderate Republican governor and a Democratic-led Legislature helped defuse partisan tensions that hampered the response elsewhere.
“Any state that’s going to succeed against Covid has got to have the compliance of the population, because every single thing you do is telling people to alter their personal behavior,” Mark Levine, Vermont’s health commissioner, said in an interview.
— Vermont reopened slowly. The lockdown it put in place in late March is still gradually being lifted, restaurants and bars are still limited to 50 percent indoor capacity and even outdoor gatherings are still subject to a 150-person limit.
— Local governments have authority to set their own stricter rules. Burlington, the state’s most populous city, reduced its outdoor gathering limit to 25 in late August when college students began returning to nearby campuses.
— The state is also strict about visitors, requiring a two-week quarantine for people arriving from places with higher infection rates. And it invested early in testing and contact tracing and implemented a state-wide mask mandate early on.
“They took action early, they let science lead, and they were consistent