Skolnik: Where Do We Really Stand On COVID-19?

Los Alamos

The President, the Vice-President and other political leaders say that we lead the world in COVID-19 testing, our COVID-19 death rates are better than many other countries, and our efforts against the outbreak are bearing fruit. To protect ourselves and our families, we must know if the above is true. We must also understand how the U.S. is really doing against COVID-19 if we are to encourage appropriate policies to address it.

We are 13th globally in the total number of reported cases per million population. We have more cases per million than any other high-income country. We have, for example, more than two times the total number of cases per million that Italy has.

What about new cases? Here, we are a real outlier among high-income countries. The number of new cases in those countries is falling and New Zealand has suppressed the virus. By contrast, the number of new cases in the US is growing and at an all-time high.

Our COVID-19 related death rate should not be a matter of pride. Our death rate is higher than that of all but six high-income countries. In addition, our death rate is about twice that of Canada, 4 times that of Germany, 100 times that of Australia and New Zealand, and over 1,200 times the rate in Taiwan. Hospitalizations and deaths usually follow new cases by a number of weeks.

We do lead the world in the absolute number of tests. However, the number of tests per capita is a better indicator of how a country is doing on testing. We are 25th in the world in tests per million population. In testing, we lag behind a number of high-income countries such as Denmark, Iceland, Israel, Singapore, Spain, Portugal, Russia, and the UK.

Overall, we should be deeply worried. The overwhelming majority of high-income countries have done better in all regards against COVID-19 than we have. In addition, we are headed in the wrong direction with an increasing number of cases.

We are nearly back to square one on COVID-19. We must urgently:

  • Restart the war on COVID with strong, unified leadership at all levels and clear and consistent messaging;
  • “Reopen” the economy very carefully and based on evidence;
  • Increase efforts on social distancing and wearing masks;
  • Dramatically increase testing so that we can carry out 5 million tests per day, about ten times more a day than the number we are conducting now;
  • Link testing more effectively with efforts to isolate infected individuals, trace their contacts, and quarantine those exposed;
  • Protect vulnerable populations, including more workplace protections;
  • Use every tool available to develop, produce, and ensure access to safe and effective diagnostics, drugs, and vaccines that will be licensed on scientific and not political grounds.

We are on course to have 100,000 new cases a day and 200,000 COVID-19 related deaths by September. In Arizona, Florida, and Texas, we could see hospitals replay the disastrous scenes witnessed in New York. Each day we fail take the above measures will lead to unbearable health, social, and economic costs.

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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