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No, the ‘real problem’ with the coronavirus surge is not the border

A covid-19 patient is treated in Sarasota, Fla., in February. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Politics is often not very difficult to figure out. For example, it is obvious that, for a Republican member of the Senate, it’s more politically useful to talk about immigration than the coronavirus pandemic. The former is a point of frustration for many on the right and an issue on which President Biden has shown some vulnerability. The latter is a reminder of how President Donald Trump’s last year went and the now-entrenched sensibility on the right that any effort to contain the virus is utterly unacceptable.

And so you get arguments like this one from Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) in an appearance Wednesday morning on Fox Business.

Barrasso told host Stuart Varney that he opposes new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aimed at increasing the wearing of face coverings, as though such guidelines act as a federal mandate.

But then he went further.

“The real problem right now is our porous southern border,” Barrasso claimed. “People are coming over at a rate of almost 2 million for the year. They’re not tested. They’re not vaccinated. That is the biggest influx of coronavirus and variations of that into the country.”

It is not true that migrants who cross the border from Mexico are not tested. They are, though the process for doing so is somewhat patchwork. It is true that there has been a surge in cases in detention centers — but, then, there’s been a surge nationally as well. It may also be true that migrants make up a large percentage of cases coming into the country for the simple reason that international migration is still somewhat limited.

Beyond that, a suggestion that the “real problem” is border crossings is obviously not true.

The parts of the country seeing the most new cases at the moment are Miami, Phoenix and Los Angeles. Perhaps one could attribute border crossings to cases in those latter two cities, but it’s not clear how Miami then gets into the mix. (The Sun Belt saw a surge in cases last summer, too, probably in part because of people being driven indoors by heat.)

Regardless, those places are seeing more cases because they have more people. The places where the number of cases relative to population are highest do include some border counties in Texas and New Mexico. But the primary region seeing high case totals is the stretch of states from Louisiana up through Missouri. There’s also a hot spot near Jacksonville.

Much of this surge is a function of the delta variant, the more-contagious version of the virus that is now the dominant strain in the country. It has spurred not only hundreds of thousands of new cases but also thousands of new hospitalizations and intensive-care-unit stays.

In some states, the number of people now in intensive care to be treated for covid-19, the disease cause by the virus, is approaching the peaks those states saw in earlier waves of the pandemic.

In Arkansas, for example, the state has seen a 130 percent increase in covid ICU patients since July 1, and the number of patients in the ICU is 76 percent of the state’s peak last summer. In Florida, ICU patient counts are up 270 percent. In Louisiana, 291 percent. That state is now at 65 percent of its pandemic peak.

We’ve included Texas above by way of comparison. Nationally, the number of ICU patients is up 137 percent since July 1 and the number of filled beds is at 32 percent of the recorded peak. In Texas, the figures are 164 percent and 39 percent — only slightly above the country overall. That doesn’t provide evidence to suggest that the state with the longest border with Mexico is being infected by new arrivals.

Nor is it the case in Arizona, California or New Mexico.

Increase since July 1
Percent of peak
New Mexico

What the hardest-hit states do have in common is relatively low vaccination rates. Nationally, about 57 percent of U.S. residents are vaccinated with at least one dose. Florida is right at the national mark. Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Utah are all below it.

So is Wyoming. Barrasso’s state is not being slammed by the current surge in the way that Louisiana is, but Wyoming has 135 new cases each day for every 100,000 residents, above the national average and well above the median across all states of 78 cases.

This, too, is another reason to point the finger at other states. It’s much easier politically to suggest that immigrants are causing the spike in cases instead of your own unvaccinated residents. And since when is accuracy a feature of political rhetoric?