Public Citizen was joined by the deans of four public health colleges on Thursday to demand that the federal government pour significantly more resources into Covid-19 testing and contact tracing to monitor and help stem the spread of the virus.
Deans Perry Halkitis of Rutgers University, Laura Siminoff of Temple University, Craig Blakely of the University of Louisville, and Donna Arnett of the University of Kentucky warned that without a concerted effort to confront the fact that the virus is still spreading rapidly and to ramp up testing, "we will be doomed to a cycle of shut down, re-opening, resurgence of the virus and then shutting down again."
"All recommendations agree that the cornerstone for not only bending the curve, but bringing the virus to heel, is widely available intensive testing and the ability to trace and quarantine," said Siminoff. "Currently we need to do three times the number of tests per day and increase our public health workforce by many times that."
"As states begin relaxing stay-at-home directives prematurely by every metric we know, the transition to more targeted distancing requiring ample case tracking, contact tracing, and testing becomes more imperative."
—Craig Blakely, University of Louisville
So far this month, the U.S. has been testing nearly 300,000 people per day, according to the Covid Tracking Project. While an improvement from April, which pandemic expert Jeremy Konyndyk said the government "wasted" by managing to run only 150,000 tests per day, public health officials say the country must soon gain the capacity to test at least 500,000 people per day to control the outbreak.
Public Citizen and the school leaders called on Congress to pass legislation requiring President Donald Trump to use the Defense Production Act (DPA) to order manufacturers to produce more Covid-19 tests. Last month, the president evoked the Korean War-era law not to order the manufacture of medical supplies but to require meatpacking workers to report to plants, even as several outbreaks in the industry were reported. Trump has also ordered certain companies to make equipment, but Public Citizen argued his use of the DPA must be broader.
"Until an enormous national program of testing and contact tracing is fully funded and implemented, the ongoing varying attempts by states to reopen American businesses—even partially—are fatally flawed and pure folly," said Dr. Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group.
The House is expected to pass $75 billion in funding for testing, contact tracing, and isolation measures as part of the HEROES Act, its latest coronavirus relief proposal.
But in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the bill a "seasonal catalog of left-wing oddities" and indicated his party is focused on passing legislation that will protect companies from liability, should their employees fall ill when they return to work, as several Republican governors are demanding they do.
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"As states begin relaxing stay-at-home directives prematurely by every metric we know, the transition to more targeted distancing requiring ample case tracking, contact tracing, and testing becomes more imperative," said Blakeley. "We anticipate more peaks, driven by experience with viruses. But there is no question that there will be a follow-on uptick in cases and fatalities if we don’t aggressively manage this transition to the tracking, tracing, testing paradigm as we gradually move to reopen the economy."
Trump said Thursday that he believes Covid-19 testing to be "overrated" and suggested it would be preferable for Americans to remain unaware of the spread of the outbreak.
"We have more cases than anybody in the world, but why? Because we do more testing," Trump said. "When you test, you have a case. When you test you find something is wrong with people. If we didn't do any testing, we would have very few cases."
The president also claimed Monday that the U.S. has "prevailed" in testing the population for Covid-19, while multiple studies show the government is still lagging behind many other countries its per capita testing rate.
"The $75 billion included in the HEROES Act that is expected to pass the U.S. House of Representatives would be a welcome start," said Public Citizen, "but the U.S. Senate and Trump administration must act rapidly as well."
The group also called for increased funding for health departments across the country and for the CDC.
"We will be unable to fully open the country or even parts of the country until we have adequate testing for Covid-19 as well as robust contact tracing. This will require sufficient funding as well as coordination between federal, state, and local authorities," said Arnett. "There have already been a number of countries that have used these methods to improve monitoring and to reduce the spread of Covid-19. It is time we join them and fully fund needed testing and contact tracing across the United States."