The person overseeing America’s national covid-19 testing strategy, Adm. Brett Giroir, admitted on Sunday that tests and contact tracing are of “limited utility” when an outbreak of disease is raging in a completely uncontrolled manner. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic is completely out of control in the vast majority of the U.S.—the country with the worst outbreak in the world.
“When you have a widespread, multifocal outbreak where many people are asymptomatic, testing and tracing are of limited utility versus public health policy measures, like mask wearing, like closing indoor crowded spaces,” Giroir told NBC News’ Meet the Press.
The U.S. reported over 49,000 new cases on Sunday, not including Texas, which did not report its cases yesterday because the state is trying to update its electronic systems. Texas is one of the country’s worst hotspots.
What actually works when a pandemic is out of control? Giroir had an answer for that, but he doesn’t control any of the available options. Only President Donald Trump and state leaders can mandate his prescriptions.
“Wear a mask, avoid crowded indoor places, use good hygiene, and avoid crowds,” Giroir said.
Testing for coronavirus is an absolutely crucial tool for controlling the spread in the early stages of a pandemic, but once the virus is everywhere, the only solution is to create public health rules that help slow the spread. When it comes to measures like face coverings, Giroir admits that 85-90% of the public needs to wear masks for it to prove effective.
“Sounds like you just made a case for a national mask mandate,” host Chuck Todd said. “Is that a recommendation that’s been made by the task force to the president?”
Giroir didn’t answer the question directly but said mask wearing “really has to be voluntary by the American people.” Giroir went on to admit that deaths are likely to increase over the next few weeks but was optimistic that states like Arizona, Texas, and Florida were trending in the right direction. That assertion remains to be seen, of course, as those states still report high positivity rates. Alabama currently has a 21.5% positivity rate, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker, a number that would hopefully be below 1% as it is in places like New York state.
Another reason testing isn’t as helpful as it could be in the U.S. right now is that test results are averaging over seven days to come back at one of the country’s largest testing labs, with many people reporting even longer wait times. The mayor of Atlanta infamously had to wait eight days to find out she had covid-19, putting at risk the safety of everyone she came in contact with during that week.
“Once the virus gets down to very low levels again, then testing and contract tracing become much more important,” Giroir said. “Where we are right now with widespread, multifocal, across many states—just like many other countries—the solution was the mitigation steps.”
In reality, other democratic wealthy countries around the world are not experiencing “multifocal” and uncontrolled outbreaks. The virus is really only widespread and uncontrolled in countries like India that suffer from extreme poverty and middle-income countries like Brazil that suffer from authoritarian leaders.
Elsewhere around the world, countries are still struggling to contain the virus in very concentrated areas. But everything is relative when it comes to covid-19. Australia, for example, has seen a dramatic rise in cases in the second most populous state of Victoria but the rest of the country is doing relatively well. People in Victoria have been under an American-style “lockdown” over the past six weeks that hasn’t successfully quashed the virus. As a result, the Victorian government has instituted a more strict lockdown for the next six weeks, more in line with what citizens in places like China and Vietnam experienced.
As Dr. Anthony Fauci has pointed out, the U.S. never really went into a proper lockdown, only shutting down about 50% of services, whereas Europe shut down 90% of services. And masks are just one tool to slow the spread.
Wear a damn mask, but also demand action from your government. Every country, from Germany to Hong Kong, has anti-mask assholes and conspiracy theorists. Masks are important, but you can’t stake your entire future on the goodwill of your country’s worst people.