Next steps for Washington, Lansing and your household
Elected leaders, public health officials and ordinary citizens all have critical roles in combating the spread of COVID-19. But what should each of those players be concentrating on right now?
Washington’s first priority: More tests
President Donald Trump keeps insisting that anybody who wants to be tested for coronavirus infection can do so. That wasn’t true when he first said it a week ago, it isn’t true now, and there’s no reason to believe it will be true two weeks from now.
In Michigan, where state health officials are monitoring 554 people suspected to have been exposed to the virus, just 135 had been tested by Thursday evening. Nationally, fewer than 11,000 patients have been tested, a fraction of the number evaluated in smaller countries such as South Korea, Australia and Canada.
As a result, nobody has any idea how many residents of Michigan, or any other state, have been infected with COVID-19. Until that changes, public health officials doing their best to slow or limit transmission of the disease will continue to fly blind.
The government’s delinquency in deploying test kits has already doomed any opportunity to contain the virus, and who is responsible will, and should, be the subject of vigorous congressional inquiry.
But right now, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must do everything it can to accelerate the production and distribution of two kinds of tests: the swabs used to diagnose active infections by analyzing mucous collected from a patient’s nose and throat, and the more sensitive blood tests that can detect an immune response in those who have been exposed to the virus even if they are not ill.
Widespread “surveillance testing” employing the second kind of test is critical to understanding how many people have been infected, how the virus spreads, and what percentage of infections prove fatal. (The so-called infection fatality ratio is calculated by dividing the number of deaths by the total number of cases, so underestimating the number of infections can make a disease appear more fatal than it is.)
Lansing’s first priority: Sick pay for sick workers
In her broadcasts from the state’s hastily assembled emergency operations headquarters, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has urged Michiganders who feel ill to stay home from work until their symptoms resolve.
That’s excellent advice. But it’s a prescription millions of workers can’t afford to follow, because too many employers don’t provide sick pay, and employees who don’t show up for prolonged periods risk being fired.
Michigan voters actually had the foresight to make provisions for this contingency when they backed a ballot initiative to mandate sick pay in 2018. But in a cynical charade, Republican state legislators first preempted a statewide referendum by adopting the proposal, then exempted most employers from its mandate in a lame-duck vote taken after the 2018 election.
Public health officials agree that social distancing is the single most effective means of limiting disease transmission. So the Legislature’s No. 1 priority now should be removing whatever obstacles discourage workers from following Whitmer’s advice to stay home when they are ill.
Restoring the sick pay and job protection provisions GOP legislators excised from Michigan law in their duplicitous lame duck session — with immediate effect — is an obvious place to start.
We’re looking at you, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield: You and your colleagues ripped this gaping hole in Michigan’s safety net; now it’s your responsibility to mend it, before it costs more Michiganders their livelihoods, or even their lives.
The employers who bankroll your party, and at whose behest you gutted Michigan’s sick pay law, may grumble, but the state’s most vulnerable workers will thank you. So will the millions of their neighbors at risk of being infected by sick workers who can’t afford to stay home.
Your first priority: Social distancing
The CDC has joined public health agencies around the world in appealing to governments, employers and citizens to limit large gatherings and discourage citizens from congregating in crowded spaces. The recommendations apply to healthy people as well as those who feel sick or have been exposed to infected individuals.
Pandemics are not new, and neither is the prescription for social distancing to combat them. Health authorities made similar recommendations in 1918, when a Spanish flu outbreak that would eventually claim tens of millions of lives reared its head among American soldiers preparing for deployment overseas.
Americans are far more mobile than they were a century ago, but we can still protect our communities by following St. Louis’ example. Even if the window of opportunity to contain the disease has slammed shut, as many epidemiologists believe, Michiganders who embrace social distancing by avoiding crowds and unnecessary travel can slow its spread, reducing the burden on the region’s hospitals and the number of preventable deaths.
Postponing a party or canceling an outing to the mall or movie theater is not as dramatic as discovering a new vaccine or disease vector. But Michiganders who limit their exposure to others are buying critical time for researchers and public health officials to do their work, and may, in the end, save as many lives.
— Detroit Free Press