Nearby states almost always go out of their way to maintain cordial relations; sharp criticism is unusual. So the words hit when, at a press briefing, Washington Governor Jay Inslee had this to say:
“I have urged the Idaho leaders to show some leadership. One of the reasons we have such jammed up hospitals in Spokane is because Idaho, frankly, has not done some of the things we’ve found successful.”
This blast had factual basis. You can see some of the core of it in three numbers.
At this writing, in an ordered list of Covid-19 cases per capita, Washington ranks (among the 50 states plus District of Columbia) 46th, and Oregon ranks 47th. Compared to almost all of the rest of the country, they’re doing well, albeit they’re also seeing cases rise and feeling medical system stress.
Idaho ranks 7th highest in cases per capita, behind only the Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Utah. These differences between Idaho and its western neighbors are not minor. Idaho has reported more than 25,000 more cases than Oregon, which has almost two and a half times Idaho’s population.
If you’re sitting west of the Idaho line, you’re looking east and seeing a landscape of contagion.
It’s not theoretical. Inslee’s outburst was prompted by those “jammed up hospitals in Spokane” which have gotten jammed up because of traffic inbound from Kootenai County, where medical facilities have become crowded because of Covid-19 growth. (At this writing, Kootenai is just about to hit 6,000 cases all by itself, and the rest of the Panhandle is keeping pace.)
As for Oregon, care to guess where the highest per-capita case rate among its 36 counties would be? That’s right: Malheur County (the Ontario area), the main Idaho entryway into Oregon and the only one with substantial communities on both sides of the border. And it’s not higher than the rest of Oregon by just a little. The Malheur rate is 6,830 per 100,000 people, half-again the rate of the next highest-rate counties, which also are in eastern Oregon. The rate in Multnomah County (Portland) is 1,598 per 100,000 population, less than a quarter that in Malheur, and even Multnomah’s rate is higher than it is in most of western Oregon.
None of this has gone unnoticed in the Pacific corridor. The Oregon state Covid website reports, “To fight the rapid spread of COVID-19, Oregon Governor Kate Brown, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, and California Governor Gavin Newsom issued travel advisories urging visitors entering their states or returning home from travel outside these states to self-quarantine. The travel advisories urge against non-essential out-of-state travel, ask people to self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving from another state or country, and encourage residents to stay local.”
In other words, people from east of their states have become high-risk.
Instead of simply feeling irked by someone pointing out these simple facts, Idahoans might usefully ask themselves why their state is seeing such higher disease numbers.
No doubt Idaho Governor Brad Little has been thinking about this quite a lot, and has acknowledged, “We've come to the profound conclusion that what we've been doing hasn't been working." At the risk of engaging in mind-reading, I suspect his inclination would be to do more - as rapidly-growing numbers of his fellow Republican governors have been or have started doing - but he feels constrained by the massive and fierce resistance from within his own state’s party.
Wyoming’s governor, Mark Gordon, sadly commented, “We've relied on people to be responsible, and they're being irresponsible.” Little might not want to say that, and he could point out accurately the many Idahoans who have been (sometimes fielding heat from other people) taking the right steps to combat the pandemic; but he probably could find some accord with his Wyoming counterpart.
Inslee’s criticism was incomplete: What’s happening in Idaho has not only to do with leadership, but also in many places followership - and citizenship, and a willingness to look out for each other. That’s a deeper problem.