Skolnik: Still Failing On COVID-19

Los Alamos

The United States is still failing to meet the grave threats posed by COVID-19.

Testing for COVID-19 must be central to addressing the outbreak. Yet, testing is not being carried out in sufficient numbers to stem the growth of COVID-19 cases. South Korea has tested more than 700 times the number of people per capita than we have tested and Japan 12 times. Their approach to testing has been central to their slowing the increase of new infections.

In addition, the US protocols for testing will lead to many missed cases, given the extent to which transmission is occurring at the community level. Many of those infected will not have traveled and will have no idea from whom they were exposed to the virus. We must urgently make it easier to get tested, in ways that are safe for all.

The federal government also needs to be clearer and more consistent in its messages about the need for social distancing. There is no vaccine or therapeutic solution for COVID-19. Efforts to address the virus must focus vigorously on better knowing who is infected, tracing their contacts, quarantine, social distancing, and handwashing. Consistent and thorough implementation of these basic public health measures is the only way that we can stem the outbreak.

In addition, the federal government must be more open, transparent, and science-based in the information it provides the public about COVID-19. The public should be kept informed on a continuous basis of the risks of contracting the disease and the risk of its causing severe illness. The public must know how many people have been tested, how many people have the disease, and where those people live. The public also needs to know at all times the extent to which the health system has the capacity to address COVID-19 patients.

The economic consequences of COVID-19 have already been extraordinary. The health consequences are growing and risk also becoming extraordinary. No amount of money in people’s pockets will overcome the economic fallout of COVID-19. They will, correctly, continue to avoid travel, restaurants, and public spaces until they are confident that the outbreak has been handled effectively. The only way to do this is to place the measures recommended above on an emergency footing today.

Editor’s note: Richard Skolnik is the former regional director for health for South Asia at the World Bank. He was the director of an AIDS treatment program for Harvard and taught Global Health at the George Washington University and Yale. He is the author of Global Health 101 and the instructor for Yale/Coursera’s Essentials of Global Health.

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