In a pandemic, sick people still can’t get tested. Making America Great? | Editorial

Posted Mar 15, 2020

If you’re feverish with a cough, or someone close to you is, you should be able to go nearby and get a free test for coronavirus, just like the flu. But not in America, folks.

Instead, doctors all over our country, including in New Jersey, have been turning away people who should be tested. This invites an explosive spread of the virus, since we have no clue how far it’s reached or where.

The point of adequate testing, as we’ve seen in South Korea, is that we can surveil the problem – where the epidemic is, and the danger lies. And right now, we’re not even close. We’re flying blind.

Even Senegal, with its widespread poverty, has been giving out test results within hours, while many Americans wait days. And South Korea is drastically outpacing us – testing about 210,000 since Jan. 3, compared to the roughly 6,500 tests the U.S. had done by early Tuesday.

The federal government’s top expert on infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is defying President Trump and telling the truth: The coronavirus has a mortality rate 10 times as great as that of the flu. And when it comes to widespread testing, our government is “failing.”

“The idea of anybody getting it easily the way people in other countries are doing it, we are not set up for that,” he said Thursday. No, the process isn’t “very smooth,” as Trump says, and the wall will not protect us. It’s striking how powerless Trump is to fix this, and reassure people.

Instead, he’s left it to school superintendents and bagpipe parade bookers and Disneyland to call for emergency social distancing measures. Now we are really going to pay the price.

It can take weeks for infected people to show symptoms. They walk among us, without realizing they’re infecting others, as we ration our tests to the most obvious patients.

“Our access to testing was entirely based on what the state would allow,” as Daniel Varga, chief physician executive at Hackensack Meridian Health, told a Washington Post reporter.

Now, private labs must step up and fill the void in rolling out tests, where the feds have lagged. We desperately need to ramp it up, and break through all the barriers, including cost.

Gov. Phil Murphy deserves a lot of credit so far on that front. He did the right thing by making coronavirus testing free for everyone under his jurisdiction, the public workers, those on Obamacare and Medicaid. So did private insurers like Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, in waiving copays for this screening and testing. Murphy also ordered hospitals not to charge fees to the uninsured for any visit that leads to a coronavirus test.

On Friday, he noted that the state is moving quickly toward closing every school district for an extended period (“It is a ‘when,’ not an ‘if,’” he said) – another smart mitigation step. Among the hurdles: About 15 percent of districts are not ready with lunch programs, and 259,000 kids don’t have computers.

And there’s still another group missing, stuck outside his dragnets – the undocumented or citizens who are uninsured, but don’t qualify for Medicaid or charity care because their income is too high. He needs to bring them under his wing, too, and innovate.

Other steps are urgently needed. Expand telemedicine so we can get medical advice while staying home. Plan for drive-through testing and separate tents outside of ERs, to minimize contact with those who might be infected.

Murphy’s charging in the right direction, but there’s far more to be done. A coronavirus test in the ER can cost the uninsured as much as $1,331 out of pocket, and we don’t want anyone to forgo it for fear of that. If they’re sick, and so much as open the door to the mailman, we are all at risk.

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