COVID-19 has thoroughly infiltrated the United States in just four-plus months, seeping into nearly all the country’s many rural nooks and crannies.
But De Baca County in east-central New Mexico remains one of only 38 counties around the nation that is still free of the novel coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fourteen states have one or two or three counties that have eluded COVID-19, though nine counties in western Nebraska and eight in Montana also have escaped the virus.
There are 3,141 counties in the U.S.
Half of the COVID-free counties fall in a north-south band that is barely 300 miles wide and touches on Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, and North and South Dakota.
“These places are not seeing a lot of visitors, and these people probably are not traveling,” said Tracie Collins, dean of the College of Population Health at the University of New Mexico. “These places that have been insulated have likely been protected by limited travel in and out.’
She didn’t have any insights on De Baca County, but Gerald Cline did.
“We’re not really on the road to anywhere — and that’s the chamber of commerce guy saying that,” said Cline, executive director of the De Baca County/Fort Sumner Chamber of Commerce and a Fort Sumner village councilor. “It’s kind of a road less traveled.”
The highway traffic count for downtown Fort Sumner was 5,719 vehicles daily in 2016, which hasn’t changed much since and likely dropped with COVID-19, said state Department of Transportation spokeswoman Manon Arnett.
“Please note traffic is down 30 [percent] to 40 percent throughout the state due to COVID,” Arnett said.
Drivers from Lubbock are the most common through De Baca County. Santa Fe and Albuquerque drivers likely to get to Fort Sumner (population 910, according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau figures) are those headed to Clovis and Portales — or Lubbock. Chances are, they aren’t stopping in Fort Sumner — and certainly not for long.
Cline said the Billy the Kid grave brings about 25 to 30 visitors a day to Fort Sumner — and it’s three miles off the highway.
“I wouldn’t think a whole lot of people are spending a night,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot to grab you to spend six hours here.”
Cline said some 300 to 400 of the census-estimated 1,781 residents in the county — “I guarantee you there are no more than 1,200 or 1,300” — have been tested for COVID-19 and none tested positive. He said the school system has about 300 students.
“Everybody who could get tested got tested,” he said. “Do I think nobody got [COVID-19]? No. They just weren’t out running around for a couple weeks.”
Self-isolation and 6 feet of distance are a matter of course in De Baca and, likely, the other zero-case counties.
“Our small population made social distancing easier,” Cline said. “We do not have large civic events. There wasn’t any stigma against masks or for it. Even at the church, it not hard to sit 6 feet apart and everybody can still be at church who wants to be at church.”
No coronavirus-free counties remain that are east of central Kansas. The last Eastern county with no COVID cases claimed its first Saturday: Doddridge County, W.Va.
All 38 counties have a combined population of 70,097, according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Only three of the 38 are on freeways, remote stretches at that: Clark County, Idaho, on Interstate 15; Mineral County, Mont., on Interstate 90; and Prairie County, Mont., on Interstate 94.
The U.S. just passed 4 million reported virus cases in the remaining counties and county equivalents.
UNM’s Collins said COVID-19 surfaced in the American consciousness in February, became an active player in March and then the country hunkered down for a while. But that didn’t last.
“People got restless and came out in droves for the holidays [Memorial Day and Fourth of July],” Collins said. “We have relaxed the standard. The greatest increase [in terms of age group] is 20 to 29 years. Fortunately, they aren’t having the complications. The idea that you are immortal — you’re not.”