Fighting COVID-19 requires national testing strategy

Three months after the first U.S. case of the novel coronavirus was reported, the country still has no national testing strategy.

Most public health experts agree that production and deployment of coronavirus testing on a nationwide basis is an essential part of the short- and long-term goal of reopening the economy

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Even the Trump administration’s plan for the nation to start to get back to business relies on widespread availability of testing. But the most glaring weakness of the plan is its failure to outline a comprehensive strategy to make that happen.

States do not have the resources or power to jump-start massive testing, nor does it make sense for the nation’s 50 governors to each try to find their own way.

This is a job for the federal government.

But Republicans and President Donald Trump were balking Monday at including $25 billion in a stimulus package for the creation of a national testing program, reportedly because of fears that they would be blamed if it failed. The dispute was delaying an agreement between Congress and the administration to provide $450 billion for more small-business loans and funding for hospitals.

Trump tweeted that the states should be doing the testing. As people continue to die, the president’s lack of leadership or willingness to own responsibility is astonishing.

One way or another, a national strategy must be implemented.

Ever since the crisis began, public health officials have been forced to work with unreliable numbers to make decisions that impact all of our lives. A drop in hospitalizations in an area does not, by itself, provide justification for relaxing sheltering-in-place orders.

Testing is the only way to know how many people have been infected and how deadly the disease is. Those numbers will help public health officials decide when it’s safe for people to return to work and resume their normal day-to-day activities. Doing so too soon risks a recurring surge of infections.

Telling people to stay home if they feel sick isn’t enough. The problem is that many people spreading the virus don’t show symptoms. The Centers for Disease Control estimates 25% of those who test positive might have been only mildly ill or don’t even realize they were infected. An Iceland study suggests the number might be as high as 50%.

Before we can reopen, we need to know how many total cases and how many silent carriers there are in localities, states and the nation.

That requires testing throughout the country. It’s essential that we get it done.

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It’s long overdue.

— The Mercury News

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