Monday, August 3, 2020

America’s COVID testing crisis

I would consider my workplace to have its “A game” going on with COVID-19. We’ve been used as a model for other employers because we have a trove of innovative protocols in place and we even have someone whose sole job is the management, auditing and improvement of those procedures.

But, despite how good we think we are, there’s an outside factor that can cause this whole system to fail miserably, something that we have absolutely no control of.

It’s not the coronavirus itself.

It’s actually the testing of it.

Given regional and national testing issues, we won’t know if someone has the virus until a week to two after we send them for a test. Expedient tests, if even tests at all, are harder to come by as resources, which still haven’t been elevated to the levels needed to address the plight of the nation, are being designated for the hottest of the hot spots across the country.

In just the past two weeks alone, community testing sites in Niagara County have dropped from 13 to 6 and our two largest health networks (Niagara Falls Memorial and Eastern Niagara Hospital) have announced the suspension of public testing so the relatively scant test inventory (like reagents) can be focused upon healthcare workers, front line workers and high-risk individuals.

Hoping to improve our lot, we looked just across the county border where Erie’s executive recently said results from the program run by the county itself would come back in 48 hours. That sounded great, but actually getting tested is a different story. They can do 500 tests a week, which certainly can’t meet local demand. When my COVID guy called on a Wednesday to get a feel for how long it would take to get someone tested, he was told that if we made an appointment for someone that morning they wouldn’t be seen until the next Wednesday or Thursday. So, it was a 9 or 10 day turnaround from scheduling to results, no better than what we could get anywhere else in the area.  

It makes one worry about the inevitable. As I’ve said before: For the next 12 to 18 months employers must understand that some of their workers will get COVID-19. Employers cannot control what their workers do outside of work but they can control/mitigate/prevent its spread in the workplace.

Our myriad responses to a possible spread of COVID – from communication to a plant shutdown to sanitizing to tracing to quarantines – are nearly meaningless if we cannot appropriately identify an exposure within one to three days. Given the week-and-a-half to two-week situation we’re faced with now, an outbreak may have already occurred due to the inability to properly assess the situation.

We need fast testing and fast results for my factory, to protect my team.

We need fast testing and fast results for retailers, to protect their employees and their customers.

We need fast testing and fast results for schools, to protect the children, teachers and families at home.

If we don’t have that, and can’t have that, right now what does the fall and winter hold for America?

Two months from now begins cold and flu season. Those ailments share symptoms with COVID. Employers and school administrators will have to test everyone who shows the slightest cough or runny nose. If they don’t, and someone chalks it up to common maladies, they open the door for not only a harmful outbreak but also massive liability. And, you certainly can’t shut down every business, school, or non-profit because someone has a sniffle. Testing is paramount.  

Once the sick are sent to testing sites to discount a COVID diagnosis the networks will be more overwhelmed than they are now. Every year, most Americans get 1 to 3 colds; it’s estimated that, collectively, Americans count for one billion colds a year. Somewhere between 25 and 30 million Americans get the flu.

We can’t keep up with the current need based on the current COVID outbreak, so how will we keep up with waves two and three while at the same riding the traditional waves of the cold and flu?

The healthcare industry, at least on the administration side of the tests, has more than done their part, having shown us that, when tests are available, they can deploy the personnel and places necessary to get people tested. Suppose we get back to 13 testing locations in Niagara County; we could stand to have 1 or 2 more but it’s still a reasonable number for a county our size.  

It’s the manufacturers and testers, who are badly backlogged, that need a hand. It’s rare you’ll hear this columnist call for corporate welfare, but the federal government and state governments have to step up their game and devote grants and incentives to producers of reagents and testing kits as well as the companies that run both the automated and personnel-driven testing labs.

If governments can always find it in their good graces to do that for the Amazons and Elon Musks of the world it’s not asking too much to devote funds that truly benefit the public as a whole and are, for lack of a better analogy, a wartime investment.

We’re in a war, against a virus and am economic depression, a war that needs to be won soon.

Think back to World War II and how long it took us to build ships – the monstrous Liberty ship SS Robert E. Peary was built in just over four and a half days.

We need that sort of ingenuity, devotion, focus and leadership again.

From the 03 August 20202 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

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