20200305_MET_CORONA_JM01

Destiny Hairfield, who works at the state Department of General Services' Virginia Public Health Laboratory, created a master mixture in the second step of testing for the coronavirus at the lab in Richmond on March 4.

In this past Sunday’s Q&A with RTD Opinions, Dr. Lilian Peake, Virginia’s state epidemiologist, spelled out the challenges in combating the spread of COVID-19.

Unlike other viruses over the past 20 years — SARS, H5N1 avian flu, H1N1 flu, Ebola and MERS to name a few — the novel coronavirus is highly contagious and, depending on the patient, very potent. COVID-19 is easily passed from person to person and, in many cases, it can make people severely ill.

“Adding to the complexity of this virus, we now know that it can sometimes be spread when a person isn’t showing symptoms,” Peake said. “What makes COVID-19 even more challenging to deal with is that there is not yet a vaccine or specific treatment to help keep it at bay.”

Calls to reopen local economies are growing louder through protests at statehouses across the country, including Capitol Square. While we recognize the need to restart businesses and understand the frustrations of stay-at-home orders, the energy should be redirected toward the need for ubiquitous testing. In the absence of a universal COVID-19 treatment, that’s the key step toward restoring public life.

Reported cases in Virginia have dropped for three straight days. But that statistic should be digested with great pause, as state testing efforts are lagging. According to a Saturday RTD report, Virginia Department of Health figures for people tested this past week (13,932) declined by 15% from one week earlier (16,447). And when researchers at the University of Virginia recently unveiled a model projecting a virus peak of mid-August, they argued that only 15% of COVID-19 cases in the commonwealth were being captured.

Adequate universal testing is the cure for such inefficient data. As part of his “Guidelines for Opening Up America Again,” President Donald Trump urged governors to look for a downward trajectory of COVID-19 cases over a 14-day period. But if cases aren’t being captured in the first place, the federal criteria are moot.

The incongruous testing landscape must end. As we pour trillions of taxpayer dollars into programs to keep our economy afloat, we can’t overlook the obvious. Countless Americans are wearing masks, keeping several feet apart, washing their hands, and wiping down phones, door knobs, light switches, tables and other high-touch surfaces — without knowing if they’ve even been exposed to COVID-19, or if they’re asymptomatically carrying the virus.

Until that unknown goes away, we face another great risk: a pandemic marred by panic and protest that grows louder — and longer.

— Chris Gentilviso

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