As of March 7th, the American Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has tested 1,583 people for COVID-19, with 564 of those tests being positive alongside 22 deaths. Compared to other nations heavily hit by the outbreak, these numbers are abysmally low and have likely given an incomplete picture of the full scale of the US outbreak. South Korea for example, has tested 140,000 for the virus, and the proactive measures are the likely cause behind their low death count and slowing infection rates.
It is not a controversial statement that the US has done an immensely poor job of handling the epidemic. Right now, New York State is all but begging the CDC to allow private labs to test, which would greatly boost the capacity and speed of tests, but the CDC continues to deny the request. Florida is actively trying to use HIPAA regulations to release as few as possible details about their cases despite their large retirement population, and Kentucky does not have enough tests to confirm a suspected outbreak.
The CDC did not have functioning tests until weeks after other countries, which resulted in many American’s possibly showing false negatives when tested for COVID-19 in the early days of the outbreak. The American testing capability is still miles behind other countries today, and although some may argue that keeping case numbers artificially low preserves the economy, especially for states that rely on tourism, I would say this is a morally wrong tradeoff.
During the early stages of coronavirus in January when the outbreak was centered mostly in China, there was international and American outrage that cases may be underreported by the authoritarian regime. To be clear, I am a strong critic of any possible coverup of numbers and severity, regardless of the government that’s doing it, and the Chinese response did have its own flaws. Now, the US openly admits to not having enough tests and refuses to import foreign made kits, and suddenly we are okay with having cases and deaths go unreported because it’s coming from a democracy? So what if it temporarily preserves tourism economies, the long term implications of having travelers continue to visit tourist hubs that are more affected by the virus than officials care to admit is grossly negligent. This will only further the spread and make containment measures much more difficult and drastic when they do inevitably happen.
So what can we blame the US’s unbelievably poor response on? I’m pinning it on the famously anti-science Trump administration which appointed Mike Pence (who did a famously poor job handling Indiana’s 2015 HIV outbreak), someone with no medical background as the overseer of the outbreak, as well as President Trump’s openly skeptical views on the virus.
Having non-medically trained individuals like Pence as the face of the response to a public health crisis gives the public the impression that it is not a serious health emergency. President Trump’s statements also criminally downplay the severity of the epidemic as well. On Monday, Trump tweeted a comparison of the flu and coronavirus, stating during flu season, “Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on”, and went on to compare mortality rates between the diseases. The leader of the free world spreading misinformation that, despite the World Health Organization claiming a nearly 4% mortality for COVID-19, the flu and COVID-19 are basically equivalent is hugely irresponsible.
Having an infamously skeptic administration has led large populations of America to believe that a disease that has claimed 3000 lives worldwide is a Democrat hoax being overhyped by the media to rig the election. This in turn has reinforced the unacceptable behavior by the CDC that has been outlined above. The American people are okay with their governments poor response only because they have been fed misinformation by their leaders and this is criminal.
I may have sounded a bit pessimistic about this whole situation, and don’t get me wrong I am, but there is the possibility for positive outcomes at the end of this all. For one, this will hopefully make it more difficult to run on anti-science political platforms. If the epidemic becomes completely out of control due to misinformation spread by the current administration, that will hopefully make their skeptic stances more difficult to endorse in the future. The outbreak also provides a first hand argument for more accessible healthcare, and many Americans could see the value in getting with the rest of the developed world and creating a more efficient government sponsored system. Finally, SARS-CoV-2 could demonstrate to employers the importance of giving employees designated sick leave with pay that could mitigate the damage of future flu seasons.