Unlocking coronavirus – Moving beyond testing

Much of the focus in recent US debate regarding the response to the covid-19 coronavirus has been on expanding our testing and tracing efforts. Other countries have used this model more or less successfully. Quickly identify sick people, find out everyone they came into contact with, and get them all into quarantine to head off the spread.

But I’ve all but given up on testing as a strategy for many countries, especially the US. I think the focus has to be mostly on increasing medical system capacity – more equipment, more supplies, more quickly-trained personnel who can perform some tasks (and get paid a lot to do them).

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) - United States Department of ...
US Department of State, https://www.state.gov/coronavirus/

We cannot stay closed for the many months and possibly years required to identify safe and effective treatments and/or vaccines. Social distancing of some kind will still be necessary, of course. The peaks should still be shaved off the caseload. And of course, some people who are especially vulnerable should take extra precautions.

But bottom line, it’s about keeping the death rate from SARS-Cov-2 as low as possible. With proper medical care, it seems likely that we can keep the fatality rate down where it seems to be settling in globally – 1% of cases. That is still ten times deadlier than the flu, so there’s no reason to relax. But it is not the first SARS (10%), MERS (30%+), or Ebola (50%). And most cases still seem to be mild, maybe to the point of people not feeling any symptoms at all.

As the expert in this NPR interview points out, we should definitely have testing for the people on the front lines – medical personnel, people working in the manufacturing and delivery of essential products and services (from food to transport to energy to water), security workers of all kinds (firefighters, police, military), etc.

But, at least in the US, I’m convinced we simply won’t ever pull it together to have widespread enough testing – either for covid-19 directly or serological to look for antibodies (and therefore potentially immune people). Better to put our resources into what we already know how to do – provide medical services.

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