Illinois, nation need to do much more COVID-19 testing to safely reopen economy

Some public health experts say testing must be doubled or even tripled before the nation’s economy can safely open its doors.

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The Illinois National Guard operates a COVID-19 drive-thru test site for medical personnel and first responders on March 24 in Chicago.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

Before Illinois can reopen its economy, it ideally should achieve the capacity to test up to 100,000 people a day for the coronavirus. Only then can there be some kind of certainty about getting and keeping the virus under control.

But Gov. J.B. Pritzker knows that’s a wistful dream for now, in large part because the federal government has failed miserably to supply states with sufficient testing materials, no matter what President Trump says to the contrary.

On Sunday evening, apparently responding to new complaints by several governors earlier in the day, Trump announced he is going to use his powers under the Defense Production Act to order companies to increase the production of test swabs by over 20 million a month.

“You’ll have so many swabs you won’t know what to do with them,” Trump said.

We’ll believe it when we see it. Trump has been blowing smoke on testing since at least early February. He has bragged repeatedly that the United States has done more testing than all other countries — though on a per capita basis this is blatantly untrue — and promised to ramp up more testing.

To quote the president from way back on March 6: “Anybody that needs a test, gets a test. They’re there. They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful.”

Meanwhile, as Trump blusters nonstop, every governor has gone begging. In Illinois, officials have yet to hit a modest goal of even 10,000 tests a day, coming closest on Friday with 7,300 reported tests.

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Testing before returning to normal

Scientists — and the governors smart enough to listen to them — insist that widespread testing is the most sure-fire way to know when it is reasonably safe to reopen the American economy, something everyone is eager to do. Without adequate testing, it is impossible to develop reliable models as to how far and deeply the pandemic has spread. Some public health experts say testing must be tripled first.

In a perfect world, scientists would develop an effective treatment for COVID-19, the illness created by the coronavirus, before reopening the economy, but nobody sees that happening. An effective treatment could be years away.

In a perfect world, scientists would come up with an effective and safe vaccine first, protecting Americans from contracting the virus in the same way they now are protected from diseases such as polio, whooping cough and seasonal flu. But, there again, a vaccine could be a year or more away.

In an imperfect world, then, there should at least be widespread testing for the coronavirus, making it possible for Americans to return to work and school with a degree of confidence that they are safe — and knowing the honest odds.

Widespread testing allows society to isolate infected people and those with whom they have been close contact, keeping the pandemic in check by stamping out new outbreaks.

In addition, new tests for antibodies, should they prove reliable, would further the cause of controlling outbreaks by identifying people who already have recovered from a coronavirus infection. These people, who may not even have known they were infected or fallen sick, presumably would have some degree of immunity from future infection. On Sunday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his state will move to begin antibody testing in coming days.

Illinois shortfalls

Late last week, Pritzker announced that Illinois has opened additional testing sites and has eliminated kinks in the supply chain for the materials needed for testing. He also eased guidelines to allow anyone who is sick to be tested without a doctor’s order.

Among the materials still in short supply are chemical reagents, swabs, pipettes and personal protective equipment for the people administering the tests. And Illinois needs greater lab capacity to process the additional tests in a timely way.

“We need a lot more testing than we have today,” Pritzker said Monday. “We need a lot more testing across the country.”

As of Monday, America had tested 3.89 million people, a fraction of the testing that is necessary, according to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center.

CDC mishaps on producing tests

The slow start in testing has been largely due to the Trump administration’s dithering, but also, as first reported on Saturday by The Washington Post, because of a “glaring” breakdown in scientific protocols at the Centers for Disease Control’s central laboratory complex. Contamination in labs delayed the rollout of coronavirus tests.

But even as Trump on Sunday promised to dramatically increase the supply of test materials, he insisted there are plenty of materials already and pushed the problem back on the governors. “We already have millions coming in,” he said. “In all fairness, governors could get them themselves.”

To which a number of governors — including some Republican governors — immediately said, “nonsense.”

Gov. Mr. Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, a Democrat, called the Trump administration “delusional.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, a Democrat, said her state could conduct “double or triple” the number of tests if the White House would only do its job.

Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican, said it was “absolutely false” to say the governors could have obtained sufficient testing materials on their own.

As of Monday, the United States had the most confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the world, at more than 35,000, And while states across the country continue to scramble for test kits, South Korea is producing millions of kits for export.

Sufficient testing is at the heart of reopening the American economy as safely and soon as possible. Accept no alternatives.

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