President Donald Trump on Sunday renewed his administration’s coronavirus guidelines through the end of April, meaning much of the nation will remain on essential lockdown for the coming weeks. Despite the president’s optimism that social-distancing standards could be relaxed by Easter — his less than subtle effort to calm fears about the economic ramifications of the pandemic — the extension was inevitable given that public health officials still lack the data necessary to best counter the upper respiratory ailment.
The problem remains a lack of testing. The United States has made great strides recently — the large uptick in cases in Nevada and nationwide reflects improvements in testing capacity — yet still lags behind nations such as Germany and South Korea when it comes to per capita testing. Mr. Trump maintains it is impractical to test 330 million Americans — and that’s correct. But a massive expansion of testing programs, even for subjects who are seemingly uninfected, is essential.
“Answers to questions such as, ‘When should we relax social-distancing measures — and for whom?’ or, ‘How many ventilators are needed in hospitals?’ are vital to our economic recovery and public health outcomes,” Harvard business professor Stefan Thomke noted Monday, “and cannot be answered without reliable test data.”
Politicians and public health workers are being pulled in every direction, working with information that is often incomplete. This has led to rampant speculation and forced decision-makers to “operate in an uncertain world where they lack the right data to inform strategic and tactical decisions,” Mr. Thomke argues.
That’s why the priority of both the states and Washington must be the continued rapid increase in the number of Americans who are tested for this disease. Thankfully, they appear to making progress with help from the private sector.
“Sometime this week, we estimate, America will be able to test more than 100,000 patients a day. That number will keep growing,” write Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the FDA, and Lauren Silvis, former FDA chief of staff, in Monday’s Wall Street Journal. They note the FDA on Friday authorized “a test by Abbot Labs that can tell if someone is infected with COVID-19 in less than five minutes.” The company should soon be able to deliver 50,000 tests a day.
The Journal also reports that Biomerica has developed a finger-prick blood test that works in 10 minutes, while scientists at Purdue University have created a handheld paper device that can be used at home and provides results in 40 minutes.
It may be impractical to order every American to undergo a coronavirus test. But the continued rapid expansion of testing capacity — even for the asymptomatic — is essential to clarifying for political and public health leaders the most productive way forward.