The failings of the novel coronavirus testing/tracing effort in the country and Oakland County took on a special significance in my household in late July as one member of our family was exposed at work to an employee who tested positive for COVID-19.
Since the pandemic was recognized in March, three of us have been in lockdown, including our son from Manhattan who had returned just prior to NYC closing down and his employer there moved everyone to a remote work format.
We have followed all the CDC recommendations. With two of us in the so-called high risk group, we took the health threat seriously. The office of Downtown newsmagazine went to a virtual work setup. Our son, age 30, did all the grocery shopping. Less critical medical appointments were cancelled. We literally cut off all in-person contact with the outside world. We hunkered down for the past five months, like every other household.
But my spouse was considered part of the critical work force in her job managing a work crew dispensing boxes of food into trunks of clients who drive up to a facility serving food challenged families in southwest Detroit.
A young worker there developed COVID-19 symptoms and tested positive. Because medical authorities recommend testing for anyone who is within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes, the three of us in our household went to get tested.
We went to a local Birmingham drive-up testing operation and took the standard nasal swab test, opting for that instead of a rapid test that we were told was only 85 percent accurate. Per the medical clinic, we were told to isolate ourselves until tests were returned in 24 to 72 hours. Right.
As of this writing, eight days later, the online reporting system tells us that our test results are “pending.” Out of frustration, we decided to go for a second test – this one the rapid results one – only to be told that the quicker test was no longer available at testing centers anywhere locally.
Our experience illustrates the problem with the national response to the pandemic since March. Aside from the tragedy of no national testing program, let alone the lack of a national policy to respond to this crisis in general, the U.S. testing program is at best a disappointment.
In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, medical supplies to properly test the population were in short supply, if available at all. States, left by national officials to shift for themselves, had to scrounge and compete with other states for supplies. We have all heard the stories.
But even now, when supplies are available, testing and possibly tracing the spread of the disease remains a less than effective effort.
Contact tracing, which should have been started in earnest in March, has largely failed. Now that testing supplies are more plentiful, major lags in testing results make the tracing system essentially pointless. The sheer volume of cases nationwide, let alone in the hot spot states, have overwhelmed the system. Add to that the fact that the CDC had estimated 100,000 tracing workers early on would be needed to serve as a preventative effort on the spread of COVID-19. At the start of August, only about 33,000 tracing workers had been hired.
Further complicating any tracing effort is the nation-wide reluctance of the population to provide information to those tasked with tracking infection patterns.
Add to this mess, legitimate questions are being raised about the accuracy of the national reporting system when it comes to test results. I spoke with a local Bloomfield Hills doctor in recent weeks who gave me a list of concerns, including CDC system reporting deficiencies that only raises more issues when it comes to the effectiveness of the testing/tracing effort to bring this pandemic under control.
Yes, testing is still important, whether you exhibit symptoms or not, and especially if you have been exposed to someone who is known to be infected. Even without symptoms, you could be an asymptomatic carrier of the virus and pass it to others. Testing still gives us a snapshot metric, albeit not perfect, in terms of the percentage of positive results from those tested. It's a hint of what could be taking place in the wider population, and still plays a role in the setting of public policy response.
Oakland County, for example, back in mid-April, when testing 792 persons in one day, showed 26.5 percent of those tested were positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. On May 15, with 1,520 persons tested, 4.8 percent were positive. June 15, the number of positive results was 1.3 percent of 1,456 receiving the test. Now that the county has reopened, on July 14 about 5,000 persons were tested and 2.6 percent of the results were positive. That positive percentage jumped to 4.9 percent on July 31 when 3,826 persons were tested.
COVID-19 is expected to remain a health threat for at least the next year. Let's hope the testing debacle gets addressed. If not, then forget about bringing the economy back beyond its current fragile status.
POLICE POLICIES: As a follow-up on our July longform article on what policies exist to control police behavior (i.e. chokeholds, for example), when we wrote the piece we had great cooperation from our three local police departments, the county sheriff and the state police in terms of supplying copies of department policies. Only the city of Southfield refused to supply their policy in response to our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. After we went to press, we finally heard from the city of Royal Oak Police Department, which also rejected our request, hiding behind some provision of the FOIA.
We could appeal these two denials, and likely win, but we are taking a different tact. I am now reaching out to local members of the state House and Senate to determine if we can find support for changes to the Freedom of Information Act which now exempts police department policy documents from FOIA requests. Transparency when it comes to department policies on how officers operate is paramount. We can understand exemptions for documents on how officers are deployed. No one wants to impede or threaten operations of law enforcement or the safety of officers. But the public has a basic right to know what policies their local departments follow when officers interact with the public.