At a time when there is far too little of it, there was some good news this week on the coronavirus outbreak – and it came out of Maine.

Scientists at Abbott Laboratories, working at facilities in California, Illinois and Scarborough, have developed a test for COVID-19 that can provide results in minutes. Soon, about 50,000 a day will be manufactured at the plant in Scarborough.

The ability to test more people, and have the results more quickly, will allow health care providers to allocate safety gear and other precious resources more efficiently. It will give us all a better idea of how bad the outbreak is, and where we should be focusing our efforts.

Importantly, these tests and others like them will be critical to the next phase of outbreak response, when new cases slow down to a drip and it becomes time to carefully return to some semblance of normalcy.

Echoing other experts, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner under President Trump who called the Abbott tests a “game changer,” wrote recently for the American Enterprise Institute about what that phase should look like.

In many ways, it will be like walking a tightrope. And it will be the first effort of its kind – opening up our offices, restaurants and stores will be as unprecedented as closing them down.

The country should begin to open up, region by region, after those areas individually experience at least 14 days with sustained reductions in confirmed cases.

Still, it will be important to keep public spaces clean, and masks should be used on a widespread basis. And some physical distancing will still be necessary – large gatherings should continue to be off limits, and the most vulnerable must still be protected – but it will no longer be the primary tool for slowing the spread of the virus.

Instead, the effort can focus on identifying new cases, isolating the patients and tracing all their contacts so that we are not surprised by new clusters. (And we should be prepared to reinstitute stay-at-home orders if cases again increase rapidly.)

It will take an enormous effort. It will take strict adherence to physical distancing for some time to even get to the beginning of the next phase. It will require plenty of beds and ventilators for the sickest patients, and safety gear for health care workers and all others who may potentially be exposed. Masks will be needed on a wide scale. A separate test to determine coronavirus immunity should be developed so that people who can’t get it can go back to work.

Most of all, it will take the capacity to test everyone, in the way that should have been done in January as the outbreak was just getting started – and still could have been contained.

It’s too late for that. Now our sights should be on limiting the severity of the outbreak wherever we can, and then reopening our country in the most effective way possible.

That’s going to take a lot of tests, and it looks like a lot of those tests are going to come from Maine.

 


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