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Comprehensive testing for COVID-19 — even as vaccines are rolled out — could save hundreds of thousands of lives

Shutdowns could be ended, schools could be reopened safely and we would be able to return to our normal daily lives.

Every American should be tested twice a week, using a gold-standard test that involves a shallow nasal swab, for four to six consecutive weeks, writes Lou Weisbach.
AP Photos

We all should be disappointed in our government.

Not because it lacks the capital, capability, scientific expertise or health-care infrastructure to respond to a global pandemic, but because it has lacked the political will necessary to implement a national plan to extinguish it.

Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike are responsible for a tragic and embarrassing American death toll of 425,000 from COVID-19 —hundreds of thousands more than if aggressive action had been taken last spring. And unfortunately, even with the arrival of vaccines, 2021 is starting off with the highest daily death rates since the pandemic began.

We now face a tragic forecast of more than 550,000 deaths by late March — and counting.

What is so disappointing is that we did not need to be here.

As states across the country began to lock down for the first time in 2020, a group of which I am a part, Americans Joining Together to Fight Covid-19, introduced a comprehensive testing plan to federal, state and local governments. It would have dramatically curbed the spread of the virus at a time when national daily deaths were measured in the hundreds instead of thousands. I collaborated in crafting the plan with leaders in science, pandemic modeling, health care and business. The plan is based purely in science, not politics.

Our plan is simple, but it would have allowed us to avert not only deaths but also continued shutdowns, allowed schools to reopen safely, and allowed our daily lives to return to a state of normalcy by late last summer.

In short, we recommended testing every possible American twice a week, using gold-standard PCR tests from shallow nasal swabs, for four to six consecutive weeks. Those testing positive would be quarantined and contact-traced. Americans testing negative would receive a notification on their phones or by email, and this would serve as one criteria for entrance to school, work, restaurants, sports stadiums, movie theaters and travel.

This test is highly reliable, takes less than 30 seconds, and would have been available nationwide in locations such as drug stores, supermarkets, and schools. Of course, taking part in the nationwide program would have been voluntary, but incentives such as possible stimulus payments and entry into public spaces would have increased participation.

We have seen similar plans executed on smaller scales work almost flawlessly. For example, the Broad Institute in Boston, which is handling approximately 8% of all COVID tests processed in America, tests all of its approximately 1,000 on-site employees twice weekly using the same approach, and requires a negative test to work on-site. Thus far, no cases of COVID-19 transmission at the Broad Institute have been observed.

Many other businesses and schools in the U.S. have adopted similar comprehensive testing approaches and required negative tests to enter areas with others. Moreover, other nations, such as Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, have virtually eliminated the virus through aggressive testing plans.

During the second half of 2020, we reached out to the president, Democratic and Republican congressional leadership, governors and business leaders. Our plan was the subject of a favorable bi-partisan Wall Street Journal editorial. That editorial prompted 18 prominent retired military leaders to send a letter to the president offering, along with the National Guard, to handle all national testing logistics.

Fortunately, we now have vaccines. But using the vaccines as a crutch to not do what still needs to be done — and for the foreseeable future as the world will continue to encounter pandemics from new coronavirus strains and other pathogens — is a travesty. We can act now and save hundreds of thousands of American lives by establishing the infrastructure to implement a national testing plan while we continue to distribute vaccines against the current novel coronavirus.

Together, they will make a formidable combination to eradicate this virus and future pandemics. We strongly believe that our federal government should embrace this mission now in order save lives, return to normalcy and avoid continued trillion-dollar stimulus packages!

It is appalling that our great nation, comprising only 4.7% of the world’s population, has suffered approximately 20% of the world’s COVID-19 cases and deaths. Your support and activism for the plan are critical. Reach out to President Joe Biden, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, governors, national business leaders, traditional print and media outlets, and social media with a call to activate a national testing plan immediately.

We hope you will help create the political will that could save more American lives in 2021 than perished in the Vietnam and Civil Wars combined. Shockingly, in less than a year, we have already lost as many American lives from COVID as were killed in all of World War II.

Modelling suggests that a national testing plan with even modest participation and quarantine effectiveness will dramatically lower new cases, hospitalizations and deaths after being in place for two months. The plan will also serve as insurance against potential impediments to vaccine efficacy and distribution, as well as minimize the chance that America ever suffers through another pandemic nightmare like this one.

Every life counts. What are you prepared to do?

Lou Weisbach, a Chicago-based entrepreneur, is founder and chief executive officer of MerchTime LLC, a marketing services and promotional products start-up. He is leading efforts by other scientists and business leaders, as part of the group Americans Joining Together to Fight COVID-19, ​to tackle the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Send letters to letters@suntime.com.