My wife and I attended a concert at Chrysler Hall just after Christmas. Before we could present our tickets, we first had to pass through a security station, where a uniformed employee looked into my wife’s purse, and another passed a metal detecting wand over each of us.
They did so because, in the latter years of the last decade, there had been (and I use the word on purpose) an “epidemic” of mass shootings in public places.
Something I didn’t appreciate at the time: the fact that everyone got screened meant that everyone inside the concert hall was safe to be around. That screening table helped build the social trust we needed to set aside our worries about mass shootings and enjoy the show.
Now, consider the epidemic we’re living through right now.
For five months, we’ve been told that the primary means of transmission is from asymptomatic carriers of the virus; that is, people who look “well” but are infected nonetheless. If that’s the case, why aren’t we trying to find those people?
Or, to put it another way, what is the likelihood that, in ordinary commerce, I will interact with someone who has the virus and may transmit it to me?
We have no idea. Thus far, almost all the testing we have done has been in a hospital or clinical setting, of people who are either showing symptoms, or have been exposed to those who have already tested positive. In other words, we’ve been testing people who are already sick, to find out what they are sick of.
I care about those people, and I pray for their recovery. But I am not worried that they will bring the virus to our church, or to a restaurant table, or a concert hall. After all, they’re in the hospital.
What we need is testing of the general public, of people who are showing no symptoms at all.
Two weeks ago, our eight-county public health agency began testing people without symptoms. All that was required was to call the county health department and make an appointment.
Across the eight-country area served by the Albemarle Regional Health Services, only 255 tests were conducted the first week by public health departments and their community partners. The weekly “surveillance report” did not indicate how many of those tests were of asymptomatic people, nor how many positive cases were uncovered by the effort. Nor was the number of tests broken down by county.
I hate to be critical of the effort, because it’s a tiny, baby step in the right direction, and the people in our local health departments are doing the very best they can with the limited resources made available to them. But, it’s just inadequate to the task.
What’s called for is a concerted effort to test something close to a random sample of the population every day, backed up by a tracing program to identify the close contacts of those who test positive.
Moreover, it is imperative that those results be reported independently of the tests being conducted on people displaying symptoms, and in a timely fashion.
Such an effort would yield three crucial benefits.
First, we would begin to identify, and isolate, asymptomatic spreaders of the virus.
Second, such a testing program would enhance the social trust necessary to fully restore the economy.
And, finally, it would provide us with the information we need to make decisions, as individuals and as leaders. It would quantify the risk.
Such a program would give us an accurate assessment of the risk of encountering someone who has the virus. If that risk were 1 in 200, we would all make very different decisions than we would if it were 1 in 20,000.
But, in the absence of broad community testing, we’re all flying blind.
We know how to test. Unlike treatments or a vaccine, testing does not require a medical breakthrough.
What’s lacking is a “Manhattan Project” level of political will to bring testing to the necessary scale, to compel the manufacture of test kits and supplies, to hire the test administrators, lab workers, and contact tracers, to organize the effort in every community, and to support those who must be quarantined.
Some will say we cannot afford to do this. I submit that we can’t afford not to do it.
We’ve already spent $3 trillion propping up an economy devastated, not by the coronavirus itself, but by the fear of the coronavirus. That we are not doing testing at sufficient scale to define and alleviate that fear is political malpractice.
Test us, please.
Vic Ramsey is the pastor at Moyock Baptist Church.