The politics of coronavirus testing

You have a 101 degree fever and a bad cough. Do you meet the U.S. government’s criteria for a COVID-19 test? No.

Early on March 12, I received a call from my ex-wife. Our 20-year-old son had returned from college feeling sick. He had a bad cough and woke with a 101 degree fever. She had called an urgent care facility near her home in Maryland and was taking him there.

“Make sure you get the doctor to do a coronavirus test,” I said, thinking he surely would get that after one of the most dramatic days in modern American history on March 11, when the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 a pandemic, the stock market had its worst day since 1987, the NBA suspended its season and many other events followed suit.

She said she would. A little while later, came a text: “Doc says he doesn’t meet that criteria. Doc not at all thinking it’s that.” He thought our son had bronchitis and a sinus infection, and prescribed him antibiotics with a nebulizer treatment.

Whoa, I thought. Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson can get a coronavirus test with mere common cold symptoms. Politicians like Ted Cruz, Paul Gosar and Matt Gaetz receive one without even cold symptoms, because they might have contacted someone who had the virus at the conservative CPAC conference.

Peons like us are told we can’t get one with a cough that sounds like death itself and a significantly-high fever.

“That’s what they say,” I replied, then remembered reading something about mobile drive-through test sites. “You might want to see if he will give a note for a mobile test site.”

She asked. “He said [our son] doesn’t have any exposure to travel or [contacted] confirmed [COVID-19] persons and therefore doesn’t meet any criteria to be tested,” she replied. “No letter to get tested.”

“That’s what they are doing, prioritizing tests,” I replied. “Problem is someone might have it and not know it because few people are getting tested.” Less than 2,000 Americans had been tested by March 8, compared with 23,500 in the United Kingdom and 189,000 in South Korea. The U.S. total jumped to about 11,000 by March 12.

As someone wrote on Twitter, “How will anyone test positive if they won’t be tested until someone tests positive? This is insanity.”

While Donald Trump tried to assure people all was fine and his administration’s response to the crisis was the best in history, Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s top immunologists, had a different message. “The system is not really geared to what we need right now. Let’s admit it,” said the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. “The idea of anybody getting it [testing] easily, the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that. I think it should be, but we’re not.”

One reason for the slow testing response in the U.S. is politics. In January, when the first cases in the U.S. were starting to be reported, the Trump Administration declined to use a test approved by the World Health Organization. The U.S. can do its own test better, the same way we also don’t need to be in that Paris climate change agreement, Trump and Co. essentially said. So the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wasted time developing a coronavirus test, which led to manufacturing delays, defects and inconclusive tests. Supplies of swabs and other needed materials ran out. The response was pitiful, and it didn’t need to be.

By March 13, Trump had declared the situation a national emergency and announced funding for a rapid diagnostic test. Those could take at least another six weeks, not helping people who need the reassurance of such a test in these crazy times right now.

Meanwhile, places like Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong have seemed to have gotten the pandemic under control without taking draconian measures, as those in China. They understood the seriousness of this virus, which seems to be more contagious than most others and can overtake a victim without him or her knowing it with the usual symptoms, as soon as it hit their areas.

Can we learn from those? Or will we bear the fate of Italy, which is running out of critical hospital beds for its needed cases and making terribly, hard decisions about who will survive?

I can’t tell the future. But I do know the U.S. should have been on top of this situation a lot earlier. Trump should have canceled his pep rallies beginning in January and stopped taking it lightly, seemingly because he didn’t want it to affect his re-election chances. There is enough blame to go around, as Democrats didn’t exactly cancel their primary rallies, though most took the pandemic more seriously than Trump.

But enough of pointing fingers. We have to do better now. We need to get people with symptoms such as a cough and fever tested as quickly and economically as possible, so those who test positive can make sure they quarantine themselves.

It seems simple, but apparently, it’s not. And that’s the ultimate tragedy.

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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