Bowman: We missed our chance to reopen early — now we’re stuck with the consequences
Across the United States, a handful of states are beginning to reopen while protests have surfaced to demand that social distancing measures be relaxed. The thing is, we’ve known exactly what it would take to safely reopen for months and we’ve made little progress toward that goal in the time these measures have bought us.
On March 6, epidemiologist Dr. Eric Ding pointed to the need for more testing, noting that “the key to stopping an epidemic is contact tracing, and finding those infected as soon as possible.” On March 9, the Washington State Department of Health admitted the state had “limited capacity” to run tests for the coronavirus, something one Snohomish County nurse described as a “staggering” deficiency.
On March 18, Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson scientist Trevor Bedford stated that the U.S. would need an expansive testing and tracing system akin to “the Apollo program of our times” to safely relax social distancing measures.
Throughout all that, governors have repeatedly emphasized that while there are measures states can take to improve their testing capacity, ultimately it’s the federal government that needs to step up and lead the charge.
Fast forward to April 22, and we have a story in the The Washington Post saying that “some Senate Republicans are looking for ways to get the federal government to play a bigger role” in testing.
Almost two months after experts started stressing the need for the federal government to dramatically expand testing, we’re only now “looking for ways” to get the ball rolling.
With those crucial weeks now behind us, we’ve missed out on critical steps toward the only safe, feasible path toward reopening the country. And even worse, we’ve barely made any progress on that path at all.
Our current needs right now include more test kits, qualified health workers to administer them, requisite infrastructure needed for collection, more processing facilities, and vastly expanded teams of researchers and scientists to analyze data.
In the nearly two months we’ve had to stand up such a system, we’ve managed to test just over 1% of the U.S. population. Meanwhile, researchers at Harvard University estimate that the U.S. still needs to triple its daily testing if it wants to reopen by mid-May.
The ultimate frustration here is that if our Apollo Program of coronavirus testing actually began in early March, there’s a decent chance that the choice to reopen in May would have been an easy one, rather than a battle between protesters who want haircuts and health experts trying to keep us all alive.
No one wants to continue being stuck indoors while millions of Americans are out of work. But because of the choices we made not to listen to the experts in March, we’re going to have to get comfortable with that reality fast, or we’ll find ourselves right back where we started come summer.