Are US Glacier Counties Complying With Social Distancing?

As a means of containing the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 800,000 people globally, social distancing is being ordered by governments worldwide. With two paradoxical words––social distance––officials are asking people to maintain a greater than usual physical distance from others to minimize exposure and reduce the transmission of infection. 

The US government is facing criticism for its laggardly response to the virus, including its reluctance to commit to more stringent social distancing orders. According to a New York Times map last updated on March 30, at least 261 million people in at least 31 states, 82 counties, 18 cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are being urged to stay home––but not being required to do so. The US holds the ignominious honor of having the most confirmed cases of the disease, known as COVID-19, which has now killed more Americans than the September 11 attacks and has yet to peak.

Conformity with orders to limit movement has been correlated to success in containing the pandemic. GlacierHub examined the counties of ten US glacier states to see whether there is any association between the orders and social distancing compliance.

Using anonymous mobility data from cell phones, the Norwegian data insights firm, Unacast, created a US map to measure and evaluate whether people are heeding social distancing orders. The company created an interactive scoreboard, updated daily, to measure and understand the efficacy of social distancing at the local level.

(Source: Unacast)

Glacier counties tend to be rural and less densely populated. Though one might expect normal pre-pandemic activities to cease, dislocation from essential services might drive up the average distance traveled. Though some residents have recently fled from urban areas and have chosen to work remotely, most of the population are poorer and less educated, and fewer have white-collar jobs for which remote work is possible. Increased unemployment also creates more need to travel to social service agencies for support, though many services have banned in-person visits. A digital divide in glacier counties, exposed by coronavirus, is reflective of the yawning gap between US rural poor communities, where internet access can be slow or inaccessible, compared with more affluent urban areas. The closure of libraries has further exacerbated the technology disparity. With higher levels of poverty, residents of glacier counties are keenly aware of fluctuations in gasoline prices. The recent drop in price may incentivize travel. 

Since glacier counties are more sparsely populated, compliance calculations could be skewed by anomalies, such as a fraction of the population making long distance trips. Outliers would not have as significant an impact on the average in a more densely populated county, like King County, which includes the city of Seattle, and received an “A” grade. Low compliance marks might also have to do with the half-measures the US Centers for Disease Control and local officials have decided upon, where many businesses are closed, but also many essential services remain open.

Countries like China and South Korea, which have successfully contained the virus, took more proactive and aggressive measures to limit the movement of people. In the US, however, governments have been reluctant to completely shut things down, leaving room for outdoor activity and until recently, even leaving many national parks open to visitors. On March 23, Washington governor Jay Inslee said of his stay home order, “This does not mean you cannot go outdoors, if you feel like going for a walk, gardening or going for a bike ride. We just all need to practice social distancing of at least 6 feet.”

Inslee’s state was home of the first major outbreak on American soil, which included several glacier communities surrounding Mount Rainier and Mount Baker. Washington as a whole, which has seen more than 4,600 positive cases of coronavirus, received an “A” grade for its social distancing compliance based on a 40 percent or more average reduction in physical distance traveled. Counties bordering glaciated Mount Adams and Mount Rainier, however, received social distancing failing grades of “D” and “F”, with the exception of Pierce County, which received a “B”. 


Source: Unacast

Whatcom and Skagit Counties, the two which share Mount Baker and which lie within its viewshed, have grades of A and B respectively; these scores likely reflect the changes in behavior of the lowland western sections of these counties. The population of these lowland sections, part of the urbanized I-5 corridor, which includes Seattle and which borders Puget Sound, is much larger than the eastern highland sections closer to Mount Baker. In Whatcom, the city of Bellingham (population 89,000) is likely the driving factor behind that county’s “A” grade.

Poor compliance scores are not based only on the behavior of local residents, but can also be that of people traveling in. The rush to parks has resembled that of peak summer visitation in some areas. “People want to be able to get out and exercise and have some fresh air, but when they congregate together it poses a risk of spreading the virus,” said Matthew Freeman, an associate professor of environmental health and epidemiology at Emory University, in a post published by The Hill. “New York, Washington state, California have taken aggressive steps to try to contain the local outbreak, but people are leaving those outbreaks to go to places with less restrictive guidance which means that you may see the virus hotspots moving from some of these areas to areas where the guidance is more lax.”

Crowds of greater than 10 people within 6 feet of one another on the Angels Landing Trail on Saturday, March 21, 2020 (Source: The Salt Lake Tribune via Avery Sloss/ National Parks Service)

Hood River County, Oregon, received a “B” grade, the same mark as the state as a whole, which has more than 600 confirmed cases of COVID-19. “I asked all Oregonians, on the eve of spring break, to stay home and stay healthy,” Oregon Governor Kate Brown said last week. “Unfortunately, our trails and beaches were packed this weekend.” 

On March 26 Montana Governor Steve Bullock said “Individuals may go to public parks and open outdoor recreation areas, including public lands in Montana provided they remain open to recreation. Montanans are discouraged from outdoor recreation activities that pose enhanced risks of injury or could otherwise stress the ability of local first responders to address the COVID-19 emergency.” Two Montana counties share boundaries with Glacier National Park––Glacier County received a D grade for social distancing while Flathead County received a “B”. On March 27, the day after Bullock’s press release, Glacier National Park finally closed.

The state of Alaska, the most glaciated in the US, received an “A” for its participation in social distancing compliance. White Pine County, home to Nevada’s lone glacier, received an “F” grade for its part. Utah County, Utah, home of the state’s last remaining glacier, received a “B”.

Mount Shasta, California from Interstate 5 (Source: Wikicommons)

In sparsely populated Trinity County, California, home of the Trinity Alps with several small glaciers, movement of people is on the rise, earning the county an “F” rating. Siskiyou County, home to Mount Shasta, with the bulk of the state’s glaciers, also received a failing grade as did Inyo County in the Sierra Nevada mountains. There are more than 7,000 confirmed coronavirus cases statewide.

Idaho, which is home to more than 200 glaciers and perennial snowfields, received a “C” grade for its adherence to social distancing. To the East, the state of Wyoming received an “F” grade. The counties with glaciers, primarily in the western part of Wyoming, indicated a higher level of compliance than the non-glacier counties––bucking the trend set in other Western states.

Most of the glaciated Rocky Mountain counties, which form the spine of the state of Colorado, received “A” and “B” grades for compliance. Three counties northwest of Denver, which comprise Rocky Mountain National Park, are home to Colorado’s 14 named glaciers. The state, which has more than 2,000 coronavirus cases, received an “A” collectively. Colorado governor Jared Polis said, “Our generation is being called upon to sacrifice to save the lives of our fellow Coloradans and our fellow Americans. And that sacrifice is staying at home.”

Source: Unacast

Unacast acknowledged the average distance traveled from does not necessarily mean social distancing is being unheeded. “Travel distance is one aspect,” the company’s CEO Thomas Walle said in a blog post. “But of course people can travel far without meeting a soul or travel 50 feet and end up in a crowd — so we know that the real world picture can be quite complex.” 

The company is adding layers of nuance to its data synthesis. “We are in the process of understanding the best way to add layers that capture more of the complexity of social distancing: exploring how a change in the number of encounters for a given area, as well as a change in the number of locations visited, contribute to an area’s social distancing score,” Walle noted.

On March 29, The New York Times reported that social distancing measures in the Seattle area seemed to be working, “While each infected person was spreading the virus to an average of 2.7 other people earlier in March, that number appears to have dropped, with one projection suggesting that it was now down to 1.4.” If true, this also might suggest that the social distancing evaluation tool is a useful indication of compliance. The maps also reveal the difficulties in rural America’s ability to adapt and respond to disaster. 

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COVID-19 in Glacier Regions Update: Latin America Responds, Italy Uses Drones to Enforce Quarantine, and the US Copes

For the past two weeks GlacierHub has made space in the usual Monday news roundup for coverage of the coronavirus pandemic as it impacts glacier regions. In continuing that reporting, the following is an aggregation of coronavirus news stories from global glacier regions:

SOUTH AMERICA

Though the novel coronavirus has yet to infect Latin America on the same scale as other regions, governments there have learned from the failings elsewhere and acted swiftly to mitigate the virus’ impact with military roadblocks, curfews, and border closures.

Economist Eduardo Zegarra wrote in Noticias SER.PE: The Peasant Federation of the Department of Puno (FDCP) is a major branch of the Peruvian Peasant Federation, representing the mountainous region of the Peruvian altiplano.  On March 27, the FDCP issued a declaration about the pandemic. It stated that peasant communities, often seen as a backward element in Peru, and as a sign of rural poverty, are a fundamental part of the “social and economic fabric to face the crisis.”  However, in reality the communities are a “very important local governance space,” with well-demarcated territories, and  Indigenous knowledge to manage their lands and natural resources. The FDCP declares that it is “urgent to bring the rural areas closer to the national defense system against COVID-19 in rural areas, to strengthen territorial control measures that (already) are being successfully implemented by local communities and governments.” They state that it is important to “maintain virus-free territories, extending control and surveillance systems in all provinces and districts, and establish a rigid protocol of entry and exit to those areas. ” In other words, the peasant communities claim a position for themselves as key actors in the territorial control that is needed to managed the pandemic in the vast rural areas of Peru.

In Peru, the crisis has also brought the issue of access to clean water to the fore. The well-known sociologist Maria Teresa Oré, of the Peruvian Catholic University, published a post on 23 March in PuntoEdu, the web portal of that university. She stated, “Washing your hands with soap and water for twenty seconds, a number of times a day: this is the first measure recommended worldwide to combat COVID-19. Water has returned to take center stage in times of pandemic. However, who in Peru has access to drinking water 24 hours a day, in cities and in rural areas? A family from Carabayllo or the Lima district of Surco? The peasant families of the Apurímac or Puno regions? Having access to drinking water is a right that is not shared by all Peruvian families…What lesson have we learned in the wake of March 22, International Water Day, in the time of coronavirus? The pandemic opens a window of opportunity to draw attention to the need for transparent public water management that provides water security, and access to drinking water and sanitation for all Peruvians. This is the way to protect and guarantee the health of the entire population, understanding that access to drinking water is a human right and water is a common good.”

While Latin American governments are acting early, enforcement of quarantine regulations has exceeded that of most Western nations. In the video tweet below, more than 50 people have been detained in the early hours of the stay-at-home order in the northern cities of Chimbote, Huaraz, and Coischco.

In a protective measure, indigenous communities in the Ecuadorean Andes used available resources to physically block a road:

EUROPE

In South Tyrol, a glaciated region in the Italian Alps, drones are being used to enforce stay-at-home regulations:

In a tweet, the French mountaineering society said, “don’t come to the mountains, let health care professionals focus on coronavirus.”

CENTRAL ASIA

The coronavirus pandemic has brought joyful moments, like this scene outside of an isolation center in Pakistani Karakoram, a region with one of the world’s densest concentrations of glaciers.

NORTH AMERICA

In the US, shelter in place orders have been issued unevenly across states and municipalities. The half measures have left many people to opt outside, where they have congregated in outdoor recreation areas, including Glacier National Park, which has since closed as of March 27. Mount Rainier National Park also made the decision to shut down operations.

In Bellingham, Washington, residents hosted community based socially distancing with a “Lawn Chair Happy Hour.” Mount Baker makes an appearance at the end of the video.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Roundup: COVID-19 Glacier Regions Update, Some US National Parks Close, Mines in the Peruvian Andes, and 2020 Research Put On Ice

Roundup: COVID-19 in Glacier Regions

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Video of the Week: Glacier Communities Grapple with Pandemic Response

While the usual GlacierHub Video of the Week content––like videos of ice cores being dropped into Antarctic bore holes and swims across supraglacial lakes––might be a welcome reprieve from news of the pandemic impacting human societies around the world, looking away from the moment feels irresponsible, especially as the novel coronavirus rapidly spreads among glacier communities. In this week’s videos we show glimpses of glacier communities on three different continents as they grapple with the response to the pandemic; tense discussions in a hospital in Ecuador, an empty market in Pakistan, and the public health response in one US Pacific Northwest glacier county.

The first video, tweeted by the Pamir Times, features a shuttered market in Pakistani Karakoram, a region which is home to some of the world’s highest and most glaciated peaks, several of which are visible in the background. What would apparently be a busy marketplace is deserted––with two men in conversation, little traffic, and a passerby wearing a surgical mask––in a scene indicative of the economic cost of the disease to glacier communities.

Below is a recording of a confrontation in a hospital in Ecuador near Chimborazo, a 6,268 meter (20,564 foot) glaciated stratovolcano in the Cordillera Occidental range of the Andes. The dispute is over where to treat coronavirus patients––whether to bring infected patients from around Chimborazo to the hospital in Ambato (which has better facilities, but at the time had no COVID-19 patients) or to the nearer hospital in Riobamba, the capital city of the province.

The tweet reads (translated from Spanish): “Yesterday the zonal director of District 3 of the MSP [Ministry of Public Health] contradicted directives and logic by bringing infected patients from Chimborazo, when there was a local hospital that could tend to the patients…this is the beating he received.”

In Skagit County, Washington, which extends from sea level at Puget Sound eastward up into the North Cascade mountains, and includes the glacier-clad Mount Baker, there have been 48 confirmed cases of COVID-19, five hospitalizations, and one death. Skagit County’s Public Health Director, Jennifer Johnson, said success will be defined by how the community responds to the challenge. She announced the launch of a video talk show “designed to share the latest thinking, understanding, and advice on how to manage this emergency as individuals, parents, leaders, and as a caring community.” To curb misinformation, concern, and confusion, she said the series will cover topics including social distancing, testing, personal preparedness, and the emotional impacts and challenges of “keeping family safe, healthy, happy, and occupied.”

Read More on GlacierHub:

Roundup: COVID-19 Glacier Regions Update, Some US National Parks Close, Mines in the Peruvian Andes, and 2020 Research Put On Ice

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Coronavirus is Expanding Into the Mountain Regions of Western China

Roundup: COVID-19 in Glacier Regions

On February 13, GlacierHub reported on the spread of COVID-19 into the glaciated regions of Western China. At the time the disease was mostly confined to China, with smaller outbreaks beginning in Europe, including in the French Alps. In the month since, however, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and Europe has succeeded China as the virus’ epicenter. Economies around the world are shutting down as governments urge populations to adopt social distancing as a means of slowing the novel coronavirus’ spread. GlacierHub is tracking the spread of COVID-19 in glacier regions as an increasing number of people have become infected.

The concerns for glacier regions like Western China are similar for other glaciated corners of the world; while glacier communities are generally rural and may not have as high exposure to the virus as urban areas, they are much less equipped to deal with an outbreak. “In the local communities, there aren’t a lot of clinics or things like that. Normally just local doctors, but not a lot,” Huatse Gyal, a cultural anthropologist from the University of Michigan, told GlacierHub, referring to Western China. If many sick people from the rural areas came flooding to the county seat in search of treatment, he explained, “the medical facilities would not be enough at all.”

The North Cascades, in the US Pacific Northwest, are one of the glacier regions where GlacierHub is monitoring the spread of coronavirus. On March 10, the first cases were reported for Whatcom and Skagit counties, which extend from sea level at Puget Sound eastward up into the North Cascade mountains, and share a border with the glacier-clad Mount Baker. On Sunday afternoon, Mount Baker Ski Area announced the temporarily closure and reassignment of its staff of more than 70 medics, nurses, flight nurses, and doctors to help provide care to the local hospital and health care community. As of March 15, there are seven confirmed cases between the two counties.

The epicenter of the outbreak in the United States is in the Pacific Northwest state of Washington, where people in Seattle and surrounding communities––an area ringed by glaciated peaks––have been deeply impacted (Source: Whatcom County).

Schools in both Whatcom and Skagit counties are closed today, March 16, following the order of Washington State governor Jay Inslee to close all schools in the state. Other agencies have also taken steps to address the pandemic. Puget Sound Energy, which serves all of the two counties as well as other counties in the state, has announced that will not disconnect service during the coronavirus pandemic. It will waive late fees, and will work with customers on a payment plan and a new bill due date.

Schnalstaler Glacier in South Tyrol, Italy (Source: WikiCommons)

Italy has the highest case total outside of China. South Tyrol, a trilingual border province in the Italian Alps, has seen a surge of cases. A rash of COVID-19 confirmations have paralyzed the country––nearly 25,000 cases have been confirmed there––with a higher mortality rate than that of China, where new coronavirus cases have begun to ebb.

In neighboring Switzerland, ski resorts in the Swiss Alps abruptly shut down for the season on Friday in response to the virus. Norway and Austria have already closed resorts within their borders––a blow to the already-struggling ski industry. At present, Spain and France have the fifth and sixth highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, 5,753 and 4,469 cases on March 15, according to WHO statistics. But the cases are concentrated in the largest cities. There are fewer in the Pyrenees, the high glaciated mountains that form the border between them. Cases there are increasing, though, and the future is uncertain. In Pakistani Karakoram, a remote high mountain region in Central Asia, several people have also tested positive.

The governments of China and Nepal have shut down expeditions to the world’s tallest peak, Mount Everest. Last week Kathmandhu joined Beijing in canceling all permits to summit Everest until at least April 30, a move that halves the April-May climbing season at a minimum, and will cost the Nepali government precious millions in lost climbing fees.

Despite its proximity to Iran, few coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the Caucasus region––at present, 30 cases in Georgia, 23 in Armenia, 15 in Azerbaijan. Georgia closed it border with Russia over the weekend and postponed its presidential primary from March 24 to May 19.

Greenland has reported its first case of COVID-19. Visit Greenland reported the case along with a travel advisory barring non-residents from entering. “The smaller the community in the country, the smaller the nursing clinics are and the more vulnerable the situation. That’s why we need to limit traffic around the country as much as possible”, said Bjørn Tegner Bay, chief of police in Greenland and head of the Epidemic Commission.

The novel coronavirus is poised to expose the remoteness and vulnerability of glacier communities, whose isolation cuts both ways. Though their dislocation from urban centers is an advantage in containing the spread of the virus, public health infrastructure in these regions is generally ill-equipped to deal with a large epidemic. For more frequent updates on COVID-19 as it impacts communities in the world’s glacier regions follow GlacierHub on Twitter.

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Coronavirus is Expanding Into the Mountain Regions of Western China

The novel coronavirus—officially known as COVID-19 by the World Health Organization as of Tuesday—is gaining altitude. The mysterious flu-like respiratory illness that has wracked eastern China and put the rest of the world on alert is creeping into the country’s mountainous western provinces high on the Tibetan Plateau. While the number of cases in these areas still remains low, there has been a slow uptick in infections in recent days, and the weak public health infrastructure in these poor regions could worsen the pandemic. 

According to the WHO, the westernmost provinces of Xinjiang, Tibet and Qinghai collectively have 78 confirmed cases so far—up from 27 at the start of February. Sichuan province, which includes the easternmost portion of the Tibetan plateau, has 436 confirmed infections. These vast regions of Western China, sometimes colloquially called the ‘roof of the world’ because of their high elevation, are home to thousands of glaciers. 

Globally, over 60,000 people are known to have been infected with COVID-19, and more than 1,300 of them have perished since the disease first appeared in late December. Most of these infections have occurred in central China, specifically Hubei province, where the virus is believed to have originated. Officials think that COVID-19 spilled over from an animal of some kind at a live wildlife market in Wuhan, a city of 11 million. It’s reservoir host—where it persists in the environment—is unknown, although the WHO suspects it to be a species of Rhinolophus bat common throughout Asia.   

Many local communities on the Tibetan Plateau are far apart and remote, which can present a challenge to healthcare, but could also limit the virus’s spread. (Credit: Creative Commons)

The biggest worry in the western provinces is containing the virus’s spread. This is a concern across all of China—and of any country during an outbreak—but it carries extra weight in the remote mountainous regions of the country where public health infrastructure is poor and ill-equipped to deal with a large epidemic. In villages and towns scattered across the rugged terrain of the Tibetan plateau, proper hospitals or clinics are hard to come by. 

“In the local communities, there aren’t a lot of clinics or things like that. Normally just local doctors, but not a lot,” Huatse Gyal, a cultural anthropologist from the University of Michigan, told GlacierHub. If many sick people from the rural areas came flooding to the county seat in search of treatment, he explained, “the medical facilities would not be enough at all.” 

Gerald Roche, an anthropologist from La Trobe University in Australia who lived and studied on the Tibetan plateau for nearly a decade, expressed a similar sentiment. “Healthcare migration is a fact of life for the vast majority of Tibetans,” he told GlacierHub. “The more serious a condition is, the further one has to travel.”

In Qinghai and the Tibetan parts of Sichuan, roads between counties have been closed and checkpoints between townships have sprung up. Many businesses are shuttered and people have been encouraged to stay home. Villages have largely isolated themselves from the outside. “These places aren’t technically on lock-down but it is very far from business as usual,” said Roche.   

The remoteness of local communities in the western provinces could work in their favor, however, in spite of a delicate healthcare system. Viruses like the novel coronavirus require large, densely packed populations of people that are regularly in flux in order to persist. “Since the communities live dispersed in these areas, it would be hard for the virus to spread fast,” said Gyal. 

The other positive, he pointed out, is the current level of awareness of the disease in these provinces. The ubiquity of phones and social media—even in some of the most remote areas of Tibet—have contributed to a high level of consciousness about the virus and its dangers. “It used to be quite difficult to disseminate this kind of information to these areas,” said Gyal. Social media apps like WeChat and Kuaishou have changed this. “I’ve been in contact with some Tibetan pastoralists and they are fully aware of this,” he said.

Lhasa, the capital of Tibet Autonomous Region. The best healthcare in the western provinces is usually in the regional capitals. (Credit: Desmond Kavanagh)

Tibetan celebrities have even helped spread knowledge of the disease—especially singers. Several songs are dedicated to coronavirus victims in Wuhan, while others educate listeners about COVID-19 itself— “the lyrics are about the virus,” said Gyal. 

Coincidentally, COVID-19 has also made it to a glacier region outside of China as well: the French Alps. The coronavirus cases in France—11 in total—are clustered in Contamines-Montjoie, immediately below the peak Aiguille des Glaciers. The virus has so far jumped from China to 24 countries, largely through air travel, resulting in 441 reported cases and one fatality.

When the epidemic will peak remains unclear, but at the moment it shows no signs of slowing down. After expanding their diagnostic tools for counting new infections, Chinese authorities reported nearly 15,000 new cases and over 240 deaths on Thursday. A stalling economy is putting pressure on authorities to get 700 million of its citizens back to work, however, which could create more conditions for the virus to spread. 

From what he can gather from family and friends, Gyal believes the mood among Tibetans to be stable. “I think people are relatively calm,” he said. “But it depends—it’s day to day. It’s been spreading quite fast, so who knows.” 

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