Nearly three months after the first case of the novel coronavirus was confirmed in the United States, the lack of testing continues to hinder the country’s response on many levels, showing just how little progress has been made on that front.

The same testing will be needed on a wide scale in order to responsibly reopen businesses and other public places. That shows just how far we have to go.

It’s a massive problem with many elements. But for the country to safely return to some sort of normalcy, it must be overcome.

Developments in Maine show how valuable testing can be. Facility-wide testing at an Augusta nursing home has found 63 cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday, many among people who show no symptoms, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, in line with state policy, the testing at the Augusta long-term care facility occurred only after the first three cases surfaced, likely leaving days in which infected residents and staff members were going about their business while contagious. We’ll never know if earlier intervention could have limited the spread of the virus.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said his office has considered preemptively testing residents and staff of all Maine nursing homes, which are particularly vulnerable to an outbreak, as are other congregate settings such as jails, shelters and group homes. However, a number of issues are arguing against doing so, Shah said Tuesday, including a lack of testing capacity, which remains a problem throughout the country.

Though the state is prioritizing shipments of critical personal protective gear to congregate settings, widespread testing is not happening at them, even though that’s where it seems the state is most vulnerable.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 38 confirmed cases at a nursing home in Scarborough and another 24 at one in Belfast. The first cluster of cases in the country occurred at a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington. Clusters have broken out in other kinds of congregate settings, too: a pork processing facility in South Dakota, Cook County Jail in Chicago, aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

By the time the first case was confirmed and all others were tested at a prison in Arkansas, 43 of 46 inmates were found to have COVID-19.

If COVID-19 is going to spread amid strict physical distancing, it’s going to happen in a place, like those above, where physical distancing is difficult. In the case of Maine nursing homes, the people infected will be elderly residents, for whom the coronavirus is especially deadly, and health care workers and support staff, who are in short supply and often work at multiple facilities, where they could spread the virus unaware.

Widespread, rapid-response testing at nursing homes and other congregate settings could catch those outbreaks before they happen.

And testing is critical to any plan to reopen the economy, which cannot happen safely until testing is commonplace. After a slow start, production of tests on some scale is underway. But it is still unclear when we’ll have the necessary capacity.

As Mainers enter their second month in lockdown, unfortunately, that day still appears far away.

 

 


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