Bowman: Federal bureaucrats continue to ravage Washington’s coronavirus response

May 18, 2020, 10:16 AM | Updated: 11:06 am
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee coronavirus response, bureaucrats...
Gov. Jay Inslee and Vice President Mike Pence. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

When it comes to handling COVID-19 response efforts, most states generally hope to have the federal government do what it can to provide resources and assistance. The very least they can ask for is to not have the feds actively impede the state-level response, something that Washington has coped with since the virus first arrived on its shores.

Bowman: Arguments for quickly reopening Washington are deeply flawed

That long saga of federal dysfunction actively harming Washington’s coronavirus fight began months ago at the Seattle Flu Study.

The study had previously collected nasal swabs from Puget Sound area residents with flu-like symptoms for months prior to the coronavirus outbreak. After it became clear the virus could potentially be a threat in the United States, the goal became to rework the lab’s testing to figure out whether the outbreak had already arrived in Washington state.

The federal government denied a request to test those early samples for the virus, but the lab opted to move forward anyway. After the Seattle Flu Study discovered the first community-spread case of the virus in February, the feds twisted the knife by sending a cease and desist.

“Our leaders are bureaucrats, and for other various reasons that I do not yet know, they basically did not want this project reallocated or partly modified,” epidemiologist Dr. Eric Ding told KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show.

That bureaucracy was on full display again in early May, after the FDA ordered the Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network (SCAN) to halt a program that had been sending out and collecting at-home test swab kits.

SCAN’s program — an offshoot of the Seattle Flu Study group — was the first of its kind when it launched in March, designed to provide crucial, voluntary surveillance to track COVID-19 cases that had otherwise gone undetected. In April, it announced that its kits had identified 44 cases in King County out of over 4,000 samples it had collected.

It had been operating with King County and Washington state’s full approval. That apparently wasn’t enough for the FDA, which mandated further authorization at the federal level for a largely harmless test.

“Massive-scale (COVID-19) testing is the only way we are going to get America back to work and play,” University of Washington biology professor Carl Bergstom said. “Unbelievable that the FDA would shut down one of the leading lights in this process.”

“Surreal that the FDA would stop one of the most important surveillance programs we have — tragic to see such an important study put on ice,” Seattle Fred Hutchinson researcher Dr. Steve Pergam agreed.

Shedding further light on the FDA’s move to shut down SCAN, Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Jeffrey Flier labeled it as part of the “same bureaucracy that slowed testing initially with terrible consequences.” If you’ll remember, when the virus was first starting to spread in Washington, the CDC’s original criteria for who could get tested was unbelievably narrow, leaving the virus free to spread undetected in the early days of the outbreak.

As WA outbreak wanes, there’s only one ‘real solution’ to reopening

The icing on the bureaucratic cake came last week, when Washington health workers received a bizarre shipment from the federal stockpile. After receiving what they thought would be 68,000 nasal swabs for coronavirus testing, what they found instead were dozens of boxes of Q-tips, which are decidedly not suitable for testing purposes.

Testing swabs must also be sterilized and individually packed in order to avoid contamination. Naturally, the Q-tips were packaged together in boxes, making it so state officials had to conduct further quality assurance before anything could be done with them.

“After almost 80 days, this is what we get?” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said on Twitter.” [We] need a serious federal procurement and distribution plan NOW.”

To be clear, I’m not accusing the federal government of willfully sabotaging Washington’s coronavirus response. Rather, all of this appears to be the work of an administration plagued by incompetence at virtually every level.

We’re months into this outbreak, and the federal government apparently hasn’t figured out that Q-tips you can buy in a grocery store aren’t suitable in a lab setting. Meanwhile, it’s allowed its bureaucracy to stand directly in the way of testing and tracing efforts that could have stopped this outbreak in its infancy.

We’re fast approaching 100,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S., with tens of millions of jobs lost along the way. As for who we have to blame, you don’t need to understand how testing swabs work to know the answer to that question.

Read more from Nick Bowman here, and follow him on Twitter @NickNorthwest.

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Bowman: Federal bureaucrats continue to ravage Washington’s coronavirus response