OUR VIEW: It’s the testing, stupid

Staff Writer
Walton Sun

It’s the testing, stupid.

If we are to get a handle on the rapidly multiplying spread of coronavirus, we have to know how many cases there are and where they are. Floridians who suspect they’re sick with COVID-19 need to be able to find out whether they are indeed carrying this highly contagious and potentially deadly virus.

But throughout Florida — throughout the United States, generally — it is still far too difficult to obtain a test for this disease, which has been as debilitating for the global economy as it has for most of its human victims.

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On Thursday, prominent public-health official Anthony Fauci admitted that the U.S. system “is not geared” to provide widespread access to anyone who thinks they might have the virus.

The lack of knowledge from our failure to test large numbers of Americans hampers public health officials. If they can’t identify clusters and isolate the disease, they have a harder time containing it. And it is vital that the virus’ spread be slowed as much as possible so that hospitals aren’t suddenly overwhelmed by waves of cases.

The information gulf has been worsened by a lack of candor from this state’s public officials. Thus, Floridians are being given only rough information about those who have succumbed to the disease (“a 72-year-old man from Santa Rosa County; a Lee County woman in her 70s”).

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Contrast this with the specific descriptions that Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York provided when “containing” a square-mile area: we know the name of the patient, the fact that his wife and two children are also infected and the synagogue he attended.

Which is a better guide for letting residents decide whether it’s safe to go out to dinner?

Thus, we’re largely guessing and the phrase “abundance of caution” is getting a workout while events like UnWined in Panama City Beach are called off, major sports leagues suspend play and college conference basketball tournaments are canceled.

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At a time when many universities are converting to online courses and many companies are telling employees to work from home, should public schools shut down?

It’s hard to say. We haven’t tested enough of the state’s population to know the extent to which the virus has spread.

As of noon Thursday, only 476 tests had been conducted in Florida, a state of 21 million people, according to a running count being kept by COVID Tracking Project, a group of independent researchers, journalists and volunteers who are collected state-level data around the country in conjunction with The Atlantic magazine.

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For the entire nation of 330 million, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Thursday that 11,079 tests had been performed, but The Atlantic could verify just 8,900.

The numbers completely contradict President Donald Trump’s assertions that everyone who wants to be tested can be tested ? right now.

In South Korea, they’re testing at a rate of 10,000 per day.

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It is time, as Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, says, for the federal government to quickly approve test kits and for the large national medical-testing chains to dramatically scale up testing.

This ramped-up effort should include drive-through testing sites and ensure that the most vulnerable people, such as nursing-home patients and people with underlying conditions, get tested.

Everyone who needs a test for this virus should be able to get a free one. And without delay.

This editorial is a joint collaboration of editorial boards of the USA TODAY Network-Florida.