Points of Interest

More testing could save lives and the economy

Posted 3/31/20

To control the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Park County has shut down non-essential businesses, which include dine-in restaurants, gyms, barbershops, and gift shops. The restrictions were initially …

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Points of Interest

More testing could save lives and the economy

Posted

To control the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Park County has shut down non-essential businesses, which include dine-in restaurants, gyms, barbershops, and gift shops. The restrictions were initially to be in effect until April 3, but some public health officials are hinting at more extensive closures for longer periods of time.

Almost all these businesses have one thing in common. They’re small businesses, which nationally provide nearly half of all private-sector employment. These businesses may weather a two-week hit to their finances, but add more weeks to that, and the loss of revenue will likely be a death blow for many of them.

While doctors and public health officials are correct when they say complacency with the virus is incredibly unwise, the “shelter in place” response is not without an enormous and lasting cost that will be felt long after this virus is under control.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that nearly 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment in the past week. This is a staggering figure. The most initial claims the department ever recorded in a single week since it began tracking the metric in 1967 was 695,000 — a record set in October 1982. While it is a single metric, it signals an enormously painful economic collapse ahead of the nation and Powell.

If a local restaurant goes bankrupt, it won’t come back — and another will not likely come to take its place anytime soon. It takes a lot of capital and a long time for a small business to establish and become profitable. Anyone who has worked in economic development will tell you how incredibly difficult business recruitment is, and fewer local amenities as a result of business failures will grow that difficulty exponentially.

There’s a ripple effect when businesses fail, especially in smaller communities that have less flexible economies than large cities. With a small labor pool and small pool of consumers, few in Powell will be untouched by these negative impacts. When a business closes, it takes jobs with it. Those are people who are no longer shopping in stores, getting their haircut, or buying gym memberships.

I rent an apartment from a nice woman whose retirement depends on her rentals. While the Powell Tribune isn’t among the businesses being ordered to close, it’s facing financial stress due to these closures. Should my employer need to lay me off, I will need to leave Powell to find work. My landlord will lose an important piece of her retirement, and that will likely impact other businesses in the area long after I’m gone. Every lost job threatens many more jobs in the community.

Businesses that depend on skilled labor, like the Tribune, will find it especially hard to bounce back when the restrictions are lifted. In a small labor pool, recruitment for higher skilled positions requires a nationwide search. Recruiting employees to a town with fewer restaurants and places to shop becomes even harder.

With that economic decline comes an overall degradation to the quality of life. Rising unemployment will bring increases in suicides, domestic abuse, drug and alcohol abuse and child hunger, among a host of other problems. As we try to flatten a coronavirus curve, we exponentially increase other demand curves that will exhaust mental health, addiction treatment, and law enforcement resources.

I certainly don’t want to undermine people’s trust in doctors and public health officials, nor do I want to paint them as the bad guys in this health crisis. They’re not. Stanford biophysicist and Nobel laureate in chemistry Matt Levitt wrote in the Los Angeles Times how Italy’s robust “anti-vaccine movement” has been an important factor, among others, in the high death toll there, which is overwhelming medical providers with flu and coronavirus patients. Widespread, paranoid distrust of doctors is deadly.

However, the government creates a lot of problems it then tries to solve with more government. South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore have all seen similar success in curbing the spread of the disease as China, but with far less draconian measures. Life in South Korea is already starting to return to normal. Unlike the United States, South Korea had an extensive testing campaign that allowed its citizens to know if they had the virus and needed to stay at home. Those who didn’t have it could return to work and school. Since most experts agree reinfection is not likely, those who do test positive, recover, and later test negative can also resume their lives.

Rather than an all-out war on the virus requiring restrictions on free movement over all citizens and businesses, South Korea carried out a more surgical strike, applying restrictions only to individuals who carry the virus or those most at risk, such as the elderly.

The United States is home to some of the most innovative medical companies and research laboratories. So why is testing so scarce here? The New York Times reported earlier this month how officials at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention restricted private and academic development of diagnostic tests. In January, Dr. Helen Chu, a Seattle infectious disease expert, had collected nasal swabs from local residents showing symptoms. She proposed to federal and state officials that those samples be tested for coronavirus infections. The CDC and the FDA forbid the testing, arguing that her lab was not certified as a clinical laboratory under federal regulations. Getting that certification takes months. The CDC instead required public health officials to use the test it designed, which turned out later to be badly flawed.

Last week, the FDA told companies who were offering in-home testing they needed to stop selling the kits and destroy the samples that were sent to labs for testing. Since people were taking samples at home, which involves an unpleasant nose swab, the test results weren’t going to be as accurate as those done on swabs taken by nurses. Rather than have less accurate but widespread testing by people in their homes, the FDA insists that only limited, qualified nursing staff do it at centralized facilities at a time we’re trying to limit people gathering in central locations. 

While keeping a lid on in-home testing, the FDA loosened some of its restrictions on developing and deploying tests, but our nation is now lagging far behind other countries. This didn’t need to happen. The FDA reports about 80 companies requested permission to devise and distribute coronavirus testing.

Compare America’s experience to what’s happening in Germany, which has a COVID-19 fatality rate of 0.5%, the world’s lowest by far. That’s compared to 10% in Italy and 5% in France. NPR reported that Germany’s federal agency tasked with disease control can make recommendations but cannot determine what testing is and isn’t permitted for the whole nation. This allowed a German university to roll out testing across the country, and the test they developed is the one recommended by the World Health Organization. In terms of testing, Germany is far ahead of other European countries — and America.

Once you understand why tests are so scarce in the U.S., you can understand the restrictions put in place in Park County were not part of some nefarious plan. It was a reasonable response to the situation we face in trying to control a highly infectious and deadly disease. However, we could have had more options if the federal government wouldn’t have stood in the way of testing — and the path we’re taking under these circumstances, especially if it is prolonged, will potentially cause just as much harm through economic devastation and for a lot longer.

Rather than prolonging economy-destroying “shelter in place” approaches in this all-out war on the virus, we need to put more efforts in getting everyone tested. This would allow us to safely open schools and colleges and permit the rest of us to earn a living. Without that testing, lives will be lost — one way or another.

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