Reflecting on the coronavirus, and the way in which it has devastated American cities, it is impossible not to wonder what the United States could have done differently to lessen the magnitude of this pandemic. Obviously, COVID-19 is highly contagious and difficult to contain. However, the US, which boasts economic prosperity and highly advanced medical technology, has fallen short in its response to this global threat, specifically in regard to the lack of testing.
Around the end of December, when the virus started garnering global concern, the CDC warned Americans to suspend travel to China, stressing the imminent threat of the disease. Despite these early warnings, President Trump failed to take proper precautions and has left medical professionals without enough personal protective gear or ventilators. Back in January, when the first coronavirus cases emerged in the US, the CDC decided to develop its own test (most other labs were restricted from issuing their own tests, so the CDC was to be the primary resource for providing tests), which proved to be highly ineffective; it was very exclusive as to who qualified to receive a test, and did not cater to the sheer volume of Americans who were at risk.
In order to test for COVID-19, labs were required to have an Emergency Use Authorization from the FDA, which was granted very sparingly. At this point, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar declared a public health emergency. Despite the growing threat of the virus at this time, President Trump assured Americans that “We have it totally under control.”
Looking at our current situation, it is very clear that the President didn’t have much of anything under control. The CDC was simply not able to bear the brunt of testing, and after a while, the FDA lifted most of its restrictions on labs, and on the qualifications needed to get tested. Still, by then the virus had already been spread a great deal. Even though these restrictions are lifted, it is still hard to come by tests, as acquiring the materials necessary to perform these tests is still difficult.
With that being said, the issue of acquiring testing seems to be largely based upon poor leadership. Azar reported his frustration with the CDC and FDA and their inflexibility in allowing private labs to provide testing, and, according to The Washington Post, struggled to get Trump’s attention regarding the issue. Trump’s response to the mounting presence of cases in the US: “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” When tens of thousands of lives are at stake, you cannot rely on miracles. It is up to the President, in collaboration with the federal government, to take action and ensure that COVID-19 tests are accessible and readily available as soon as possible- because identifying and isolating those who are affected by the virus is essential in slowing its spread.
Here in Florida, we are not much better off. According to the Miami Herald, the state only reports progress of testing from state labs, which are only about 10% of all tests in the state. Private labs account for most COVID-19 testing. That means the reporting on the number of cases is very delayed and inaccurate — and the number of cases is much higher than reported.
It is worth looking at countries that are providing ample testing, like South Korea, and referencing their procedures. According to the Washington Post, by February 16, about 800 people (2.4 tests per million people) in America had received tests, whereas in South Korea (who reported their first case the same day as the US) there has been about 8,000 tests (154.7 tests per million people). This overwhelming disparity on behalf of the United States must be taken care of to contain the virus, but with the lack of leadership that we have seen so far, it can be assumed that this process will be slow going.
It is easy to get caught up in what might have happened, and who could have been saved if testing were made more available to the general public, but right now, it is important to focus on where to go from here, and how to prevent this kind of disunion in future disasters. What we can do now is stay inside, stay safe, and show appreciation for the medical professionals who are on the front lines.
Featured image from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention