Editor's Note: This piece was authored by Brenée Goforth.
The United States’ response to Coronavirus has been slow—potentially fatally so. America’s numbers of confirmed cases have started to skyrocket, not because people are all-of-a-sudden contracting the virus, but because the government’s decisions around screening have held Americans back from receiving proper diagnoses. Of course, this is to be expected in an overly-centralized and overly-bureaucratic system. And future virus mitigation will continue to be unnecessarily hindered until the United States decentralizes its response.
When the first cases of Coronavirus were being reported in the U.S. in late January, doctors were having to mail samples for testing to the CDC in Atlanta, and it was taking a couple of days to get the results back. Eventually, the CDC sent out test kits so doctors could get results without having to mail in samples. But on February 12, we learned many of the test kits the CDC had put out were flawed.
Even so, it wasn’t at that moment that they decided to expedite approvals for somebody else to start testing. It took another 17 days after news of the CDC’s botched tests before it released new rules to help expedite approvals. Independent laboratories across the country had been in contact with the Department of Health and Human Services since mid-January about developing their own tests, but it wasn’t until a month and a half later that the government approved the first independently-developed test. According to the director of the Clinical Microbiology Laboratory at UNC Medical Center, their lab alone could have tested thousands of people significantly sooner if the federal government had approved their COVID-19 screening test based on the WHO guidelines.
What’s more, up until March, doctors weren’t even allowed to test many of their patients who could potentially have had the Coronavirus. Strict guidelines from the CDC only called for COVID-19 tests if the patient both (1) was showing symptoms of respiratory illness and (2) had either recently been to China or close to someone already infected with COVID-19. Doctors did not have the discretion to test patients they suspected might have the virus unless they met the CDC’s requirements. It wasn’t until March 4 that the CDC put out new guidelines allowing doctors to test any patients with relevant symptoms for the virus.
So, to recap: (1) the government was overly restrictive about who could be tested, (2) botched the test kits and (3) failed to expedite the process of approving independently developed screening tests until weeks after its own failure.
Because of the failures of our giant centralized government approval process, thousands of people who could have the virus have not been tested and properly diagnosed. If the government handed over the reins, we could’ve worked to stem the crisis before it got out of hand.
The federal government should’ve gotten out of the driver’s seat, because a pandemic is not the time to drag our feet. It still can take four days to get results back from tests sent to large labs like Labcorp and Quest, but it can take as little as four hours to get results back from independent laboratories. There is no way to make up for this lost time. And unfortunately, it’s unlikely our systems will learn from this mistake. The government has proven it’s reluctant to give up control, even when our private institutions are capable of responding quicker and more efficiently.
The mitigation of pandemics depends entirely on how quickly we can respond in those first few days. But our government entrenches bureaucratic systems that makes us unable to respond with the proper speed. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that American lives depend on the availability of timely testing. Timely testing that the government alone is evidently not able to provide.
Brenée Goforth is a policy commentator based out of Raleigh, North Carolina. There, she works at a state-based think tank and is a contributor for Young Voices.