Donald Trump likes to jubilantly crow about how unimportant the coronavirus is. At the White House Thursday he said, “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” He might not have that rosy a view of the future, if he knew that the Center for Disease Control, CDC, lost valuable time that could have been used to track the spread of the disease in the United States because it rejected the use of the World Health Organization test and devised a test of its own, to identify not only covid-19 but other viruses. At the beginning of February, it was discovered that the test was faulty. This lack of a reliable test prevented “surveillance testing” of people in possible hotspots, a standard method that detects a disease before large numbers of people start showing up at the local ER. ProPublica:
“We’re weeks behind because we had this problem,” said Scott Becker, chief executive officer of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, which represents 100 state and local public laboratories. “We’re usually up-front and center and ready.”
The CDC announced on Feb. 14 that surveillance testing would begin in five key cities, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. That effort has not yet begun.
Donald Trump’s rosy optimism is based upon the fact that we don’t know what’s out there, only what’s already been presented.
So far, the United States has had only 15 confirmed cases, a dozen of them travel-related, according to the CDC. An additional 45 confirmed cases involve people returning to the U.S. having gotten sick abroad. But many public health experts and officials believe that without wider testing the true number of infected Americans remains hidden.
“The basic tenet of public health is to know the situation so you can deal with it appropriately,” said Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. He noted that Guangdong, a province in China, conducted surveillance testing of 300,000 people in fever clinics to find about 420 positive cases. Overall, Guangdong has more than 1,000 confirmed cases. “If you don’t look, you won’t find cases,” he said.
Plus, doctors’ efforts are further hamstrung by the fact that the coronavirus was declared a public health emergency on Wednesday and that triggered federal rules which raise the bar for all tests, and require hospitals to validate their tests with the FDA. This can be a long process, especially considering the fact that now time is of the essence. Mass production of coronavirus test kits is being discussed, but that isn’t likely to happen until at least April. In the meantime, who knows what’s really going on out there and how many people have actually got this thing? This is a situation where what you don’t know could kill you.