- After weeks of lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the US is on its way to reopen the economy. However, a number of states have been reporting spikes in new cases throughout the country.
- While the culpability could appear to be on a so-called “rushed reopening,” one expert said the blame should instead be placed on the lack of a comprehensive testing and contact tracing system in the US.
- Danielle Allen, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, joined more than 30 other cross-disciplinary experts to co-author detailed guidance, titled “Pandemic Resilience: Getting It Done,” on the necessary levels of testing and tracing to safely reopen communities.
- Allen told Business Insider that the US’ approach to slow the spread instead of suppressing cases entirely could be at fault for the spikes in cases.
- “Most states have reopened with a mitigation strategy in place rather than a suppression strategy,” she said, “and our view is that this is a mistake because it does not provide a sufficiently secure foundation for full opening and fully stable opening.”
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States across the US are on the path to reopening their economies after months of a patchwork of “stay-at-home” orders put in place to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The White House released a set of criteria that states are recommended to meet before reopening. As of Friday, only seven states have met all of the criteria, according to a ProPublica analysis.
Coronavirus cases in the US have been on the rise, with the country recording the biggest jump in new cases within a 72-hour period earlier this week. A leaked CDC document named the US as the worst of 10 major countries in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Friday night, the US had reported over 2 million cases and more than 114,000 deaths.
—Sharon Weinberger (@weinbergersa) June 10, 2020
One expert said that as we address the rise in cases, the frame should be shifted from a focus on a “rushed reopening” towards a delay in establishing a cohesive testing and contact tracing strategy.
Danielle Allen, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, joined more than 30 other cross-disciplinary experts to co-author detailed guidance, titled “Pandemic Resilience: Getting It Done,” on the necessary levels of testing and tracing to safely reopen communities.
“I don’t think we rushed the reopening. I don’t think we did,” Allen told Business Insider. “What I think we failed to do was to build the tools of suppression. That’s what we failed to do.”
Allen said reopening the US came more-or-less “when it should have been,” but “we should have had those tools of suppression in place by the time we reopened.”
She told Business Insider that the discrepancy in the US’ shortcomings in dealing with the coronavirus lies in its approach of simply putting a band-aid over the problem rather than taking a head-on approach to suppress the disease.
“What our strategy boils down to fundamentally is a choice of suppression — getting back to near zero case incidents — as the right strategy rather than mitigation, which is just about slowing the spread,” Allen said.
“Most states have reopened with a mitigation strategy in place rather than a suppression strategy,” Allen told Business Insider, “and our view is that this is a mistake because it does not provide a sufficiently secure foundation for full opening and fully stable opening.”
“Basically what matters is that you need to be able to do enough testing to trace the chains of transmission and break the chains of transmission in order to suppress the disease and to get prevalence back down to near zero.”
As of June 12, the US has administered more than 23 million coronavirus tests, and nearly 2.5 million tests came back positive, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By comparison, the Harvard experts’ “Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience” called for 5 million tests to be completed per day, which would be scaled up to 20 million tests per day by the end of July.
According to a report from Stat News at the end of April, many states fell short of the necessary testing levels needed to safely reopen by the start of May, which was when federal guidelines on social distancing expired.
She said the strategy of suppression has been used and thus far proven successful in a number of other countries, including Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, and South Korea.
“This strategy of suppression has been used all over the world, … and the difference is really remarkable,” Allen said. “So where countries have really embraced full suppression — not just mitigation, but full suppression — they are doing much better.”
Taiwan saw GDP growth at 1.67% in the first quarter of this year — the slowest in five years — but it showed the country was on the road to economic recovery in light of the pandemic.
Though the US has already embarked on phased reopening in a number of states, Allen said there is still time to establish an unmitigated, proper testing and contact tracing system to suppress new cases and eventually achieve zero new incidents.
“I think a lot of people believed early on that this country did not have the capacity to achieve suppression and that’s just not true,” she said. “We do have the capacity to achieve suppression and we would be much better off if we did.”
“So it’s not the reopening that was rushed — it’s the delay to build the tools of suppression that’s the problem,” Allen added, “and people need to reorient the frame on that one.”