I don’t know about you, but I’m not dying to go back to work. It’s been 40 days and 40 nights since I stopped substitute teaching in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic and it’s still not clear if I’m ever going back at all.
I’m 60+ years old, a Hepatitis C survivor, an ex-smoker and ripe for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus that is extraordinarily lethal for my age group and above, especially if you have underlying conditions. Public schools are known to be veritable viral petri dishes. Naturally, I want to avoid an impromptu early exit off this mortal coil if possible.
I’ve yet to receive my federal coronavirus stimulus payment (will it be signed by Sharpie?!) or my unemployment benefits, but the checks I am assured are in the mail. Hundreds of millions of ordinary Americans are receiving hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency state and federal spending right along with me.
This funding provides financial support to those of us who’ve lost our jobs, while local, state and federal officials attempt to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic, which has tanked the global economy. Take some deep breaths and relax, while you still have time.
Until a vaccine is available, public officials have essentially three tools for controlling the coronavirus pandemic: promoting public hygiene practices such as frequent hand washing and not touching your face, mandating social distancing measures such as California’s current stay-at-home rules, and widespread testing of individuals for COVID-19.
As of this writing, novel coronavirus has infected more than 2.4 million people globally, killing 166,000 people. The United States leads the world with 762,000 confirmed coronavirus infections and 41,000 deaths. California ranks sixth in the nation with 31,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 1150 deaths. Shasta County has 26 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 3 deaths.
So far in Shasta County, 979 people have been tested for coronavirus, roughly .5 percent of the county’s 180,000 population, according to the Health and Human Services Agency’s website. Some 953 people have tested negative. Twenty-three people have been placed in quarantine and nine in isolation. Three have succumbed to the virus and 13 have recovered.
But how many more people need to be tested before we can safely go back to work in, say, mid-May?
The short answer to that question is “a lot more than we’re testing now.” According to the New York Times, Harvard University researchers figure California needs to increase its current rate of 26 coronavirus tests per 100,000 people per day by a factor of nearly six, to 152 tests per 100,000 people per day.
Nationally, they suggest testing be boosted from the current 146,000 people per day to 500,000 to 700,000 people per day until mid-May and beyond.
“That level of testing is necessary to identify the majority of people who are infected and isolate them from people who are healthy, according to the researchers,” the Times reported.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 testing is a touchy subject with President Donald Trump. It has been since the very beginning of the pandemic when his own Centers for Disease Control botched the roll-out of its coronavirus test and Trump refused to take responsibility for it.
The CDC and Trump have since ramped up testing capability, to the current 146,000 tests per day, but global supply chains for swabs, chemical reagents and testing materials remain disrupted, and U.S. governors have increasingly turned to the federal government for help.
In response, during Thursday’s roll-out of the Coronavirus Task Force’s cumbersomely titled economic plan, Opening Up America Again, Trump casually announced he didn’t think widespread testing was necessary for loosening some stay-at-home restrictions—even though his new plan calls for widespread testing—and then spent the rest of the week shifting sole responsibility for testing to the states.
“The States have to step up their testing!” Trump tweeted on Friday. Then, somewhat bizarrely, he chose to “LIBERATE” the states of Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia, where Democratic governors face nascent protest movements against their strict stay-at-home policies.
That these states’ current stay-at-home policies mirror those in Opening Up America Again, which had heavy input from Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, his two top infectious disease experts, has apparently not crossed Trump’s mind.
According to the president’s own rules, these stay-at-home policies are required until the states bring their coronavirus case numbers down for a sustained time period. He’s inciting his base to rebel against his own administration’s advice and creating more potential COVID-19 hotspots at the same time.
Seems like someone’s panicking over at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. For the rest of us, the proof will be in the testing, and fortunately the testing is in the president’s plan, which serves as a guideline for states and regions to adapt to their own particular circumstances.
As Shasta County continues to ramp up testing in the coming weeks, more contact tracing will be conducted, and it is probable that more asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 will be discovered. Those cases are important to detect, because the virus is still highly infectious even though the person has no COVID-19 symptoms.
Given that California acted sooner than other states when it issued its stay-at-home order, the wave of coronavirus infections forecast to wash over Shasta County has certainly been blunted, though it hasn’t crested quite yet.
The only way to know for certain if and when it’s safe for everybody to go back to work is testing, testing and more testing. Trump boasts that we’re testing millions and millions of people for COVID-19, but the truth is we’re only testing 146,000 people per day when the Harvard experts say we should be testing 500,000 to 700,000 per day.
Nationally, it seems highly doubtful that we’ll be able to ramp up testing soon enough to reopen significant areas of the country by mid-May, as the president desires.
Remember, those same Harvard experts found that California tests an abysmally low 26 people per 100,000 people per day and would have to boost testing six times that amount, to 152 people per 100,000 people per day in order to open the state by mid-May. If we round up Shasta County’s population to 200,000, figure Shasta County would have to test 150 to 300 people per day in order to open the county for business by mid-May.
That range sounds manageable, as long as supplies and personnel are available, and Shasta County may eventually reach that level of testing, although probably not by mid-May. We’ve bought ourselves some time by blunting the coronavirus, but that time may be wasted if we don’t ramp up testing immediately. I literally can’t believe there’s still time to write that yet again.
Testing matters. If anyone tells you different, they’re lying, even if it’s the president of the United States.
Stay cool, stay calm and stay at home. Mask up on those essential trips. Remember the government check’s in the mail. Don’t panic. It’s just a pandemic. We’ll get through this. No one should be dying to go back to work.