The pandemic fractured America. It exposed, and then accelerated, the widening of some cultural and political chasms between the red areas of the country and the blue.
The hope was that as the disease crisis subsided, these cracks might shrink back to something more resembling “normal.”
But what if a larger seismic event has been triggered that now can’t be, or won’t be, stopped?
I’ve been wondering this with respect to our neighboring red state, Idaho.
Recently the news came out over there that during the delta phase of the pandemic last fall, Idaho in desperation had shipped more than 2,000 patients to Washington because its hospitals were so overwhelmed with unvaccinated COVID-19 sufferers that they had to ration medical care.
“During this period, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee criticized Idaho’s leadership for ‘clogging up’ his state’s hospitals,” the Idaho Capital Sun reported. “Data from Idaho’s and Washington’s health departments back up this criticism.”
The news organization looked at patient-transfer data and found that, even as Idaho’s Republican political leaders resisted many COVID control measures and the state was among the worst for getting vaccinated, its sick residents were being exported for care to hospitals here, mostly in Spokane but also to both Harborview and the UW Medical Center in Seattle.
This had a predictable ripple effect.
“Today in my state, Washington citizens in many cases cannot get heart surgery, cannot get cancer surgery that they need, because we are having to take too many people of unvaccinated nature and unmasked, many of whom come from Idaho, and that’s just maddening frankly,” Inslee said at the time.
Last fall my inbox was jammed with stories from Seattle-area patients whose appointments here had been delayed or outright canceled.
“Am I angry? You bet I am,” wrote one Snohomish man whose cardiac surgery had been put off indefinitely last fall.
In addition to being maddening, at times this refusal to deal with medical reality was deadly. An Idaho doctor described waiting so long for a transfer bed to open up that his COVID patient died. It’s likely one of the reasons Idaho’s death rate from COVID is 75% higher than Washington’s.
It shows how far we are from universal health care, where you get treated no matter where you live or how much money you make.
I’m recounting this tale of political malpractice because, incredibly, it’s all about to be repeated — except with abortion this time.
Idaho lawmakers just banned abortions there after about six weeks of pregnancy. They added one of those vigilante clauses that deputizes family members to sue doctors for damages. The law was stayed temporarily by the courts last week, but it’s similar to a Texas law that the U.S. Supreme Court allowed to stand.
Already Idaho women are coming to clinics in Washington. A reproductive care clinic in Pullman reports 43% of its patients now are from Idaho. This past week, Planned Parenthood began renting space near the Idaho border in Oregon to get ready for women making abortion treks over from Boise.
Idahoan demand for abortions here is expected to increase fourfold if the ban is upheld there, according to a forecast from an institute that studies reproductive health care.
Going across borders to get medical care may feel like a scene in a dystopian novel. But we just did the same thing with Idaho COVID patients — and the political establishment in Idaho doesn’t seem the least bit chagrined by the experience.
Women’s health advocates here, to their credit, are gearing up as if for refugee relief, offering to help pay travel, lodging and other costs for Idaho women.
“We are, right now, working to stabilize all of our health centers … and ensuring that patients who need abortion access in Washington, we will be here for them to get it,” the head of Planned Parenthood Great Northwest said in Seattle recently.
It’s like an underground railroad is forming, only for women’s health care.
This will lead to the same delays and rationing of services as happened with COVID last fall. That’s already been the case around Texas, as clinics in neighbor states reported an 800% increase in Texas patients, with wait times growing to more than a month.
I don’t know how to put it other than: This looks like a country tearing apart at the seams.
It’s admirable that groups here are so willing to help a neighboring state in need. But it’s a state that’s actively harming its own people to the point they have to be medevaced or smuggled over here for care. So how deep is that well?
How long before we look over at Idaho and say: Why do we have to be your civilization?
How long before Idaho’s GOP ratchets it up and tries to sue us for helping their women get reproductive care — as Missouri’s Republicans have already proposed?
This is not tilting back toward relative normalcy. It’s spiraling off even more into “The Handmaid’s Tale” territory. You have to wonder if we’ll respond by splitting farther apart.
The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has a new essay out in The Atlantic magazine about how as the pandemic ebbs, the fractured states of America resemble the fallen biblical city of Babel:
“Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly,” he writes. “We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. … We are like two different countries claiming the same territory. With two different versions of the Constitution, economics and American history.”
In other words: We are all Washington and Idaho now.