By David Loomis
INDIANA – “The virus will tell us.”
So responded Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to questions about when to reopen the U.S. economy and loosen community mitigation measures.
Fauci, the bespectacled personification of pandemic expertise, is a trusted pundit. Even Fox News says so.
And virologists and epidemiologists say testing for coronavirus infection (and tracing of social contacts) is how the virus will tell us — including Pennsylvanians — when it’s safe to reopen for business.
On Sunday, nationwide testing data reported by The Associated Press appeared on the front page of The Indiana Gazette. The headline said most states are falling short on testing, and Pennsylvania is among them.
The state health department says testing capacity has improved. But collaborating researchers for the AP and for Harvard University say the capacity falls well short of what’s needed.
The researchers calculated the number of COVID-19 diagnostic tests needed for each state to accurately gauge exposure to the pandemic and risks of reopening for business. In Pennsylvania, the number of daily tests needed is 15,075.
But the state health department reports total testing — government and commercial labs combined – amounts to about 5,500 tests a day statewide, or about one-third of what the researchers recommend.
That means Pennsylvania needs to triple its diagnostic testing before it even begins to consider relaxing its stay-at-home measures and responding to a second wave of infection predicted to arrive later this year.
INDIANA COUNTY’S TESTING capacity likewise falls short.
The AP and Harvard researchers say the minimum number of tests needed per day per 100,000 population is 152. By that ratio, Indiana County’s population of 84,000 would need about 130 tests per day to adequately assess the coronavirus’ spread and the risks of opening for business here.
On April 18, The Gazette reported a collaboration between Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Indiana Regional Medical Center soon would conduct “as many as 200 coronavirus tests daily.” Test results will be returned in “just a quick four-hour or same-day turnaround,” predicted IRMC CEO Stephen Wolfe. The IUP/IRMC collaboration was set to start two days later, on April 20.
The prediction has fallen well short of the need, according to a review of state health department archival data.
On April 16, the health department began to publish running totals of COVID-19 tests, both positive and negative, administered each day in every one of the state’s 67 counties. In the two-week period between April 17 and April 30 – a period overlapping the IUP/IRMC initiative – an average of 24 tests a day were administered in Indiana County, a fraction of the IUP/IRMC prediction and a fraction of the Harvard researchers’ daily-rate estimate.
So far in May, the county’s daily testing rate has declined. From May 1-May 5, daily testing dropped to an average of 20 a day from 24 a day in April. Meanwhile, the county posted its fifth COVID-19 death on May 5.
PANDEMIC EXPERTS say policymakers should follow a Box It In strategy based on four measurements to inform decisions on reopening for business amid a pandemic. The four measures are widespread testing, isolation of cases, contact tracing and quarantine of contacts.
Indiana County falls short on every one of those measures, as documented by the state health department or as undocumented by information not released for public evaluation.
Meanwhile, fresh independent forecasts of the pandemic’s spread do not support relaxing mitigation strategies. And a new Washington Post-University of Maryland poll finds public opinion holding strong against reopening for business.
LOOKING FOR LIGHT at the end of the tunnel? The solidarity of public opinion is it. For now.
As for policymakers, they should seek ways to strengthen the Box It In strategy so that when the virus tells us what to do, we will be able to respond knowledgeably, appropriately and safely.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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