How’s your distancing doing? My first few days of working at home have felt like a long weekend in the middle of the week, a forced staycation. Or are you in shutdown-lockdown-quarantine from this “invisible enemy” most of us call COVID-19?
Now that we’re all joined in a national waiting game, it’s hard to avoid wondering how this waiting apart will end. By what criteria will our governors decide to lift the current work, gathering, and travel restrictions? That day will come only when we can turn the invisible into the visible through widespread testing. Until we can “see” who is positive and who is negative for COVID-19, we will be groping in the dark with no idea what our true risks are.
South Korea got those numbers right from the start of their epidemic with widespread testing for COVID-19. Back in early February the South Korean government established rapid testing at a rate of 10,000 tests per day in targeted areas of the country to identify the cases and the asymptomatic carriers and who was negative. By mapping the hotspots and tracking progress over time they have been able to efficiently quarantine the cases, the carriers, and those exposed to carriers, containing the epidemic without shutting down their economy.
Our government is coming late to this game. A month into this epidemic in the US we have only tested 59,000 total. Finally this week the engines of government and private enterprise in the US announced intentions to ramp up testing capacity to 10,000 tests a day. (See Kaleigh Rogers 3/18/20)) In Ohio we just began drive-through testing last week, limited to symptomatic patients who have a doctor’s order. And it still takes 3-4 days to get a test result. We’re a long way from 10,000 tests a day. Until we can do widespread testing with rapid results and tracking over time, our epidemiologists will have no reliable way to define the course of this epidemic in our regions.
Where are our billionaires when we need them? They should be lining up for the chance to play savior here and now. Fast infusions of cash to the labs and state health departments could accelerate the purchase of testing kits, the hiring of temporary staff, the set up of emergency labs, and the distribution of testing data to CDC and those who make the policies that manage this epidemic state-by-state.
Widespread testing is not a luxury. It’s the only means to efficiently allocate scarce medical resources where they’re most needed and to define who should and should not participate in quarantines, and for how long. It’s essential to resuscitating our economy. Widespread testing for many months will also provide the most reliable way to say with confidence when our quarantines have been effective and when we can confidently come together again to laugh and cough and sneeze without fear. Mr Bloomberg, can you spare some change?