Commentary: Testing will be key to corralling virus and reopening

By Dan Cannon

Many have described our fight against the novel coronavirus pandemic as a war, and as even non-warriors know, key elements in winning wars are good intelligence and secure/reliable supplies/supply lines.

In several respects, our federal government has been fighting the viral enemy with far less than optimal levels of each of the crucial elements, most especially intelligence about the virus.

Continuing quarantines, stay-at-home and shutdown orders, and social distancing are like fighting a fire blind, but are essential to suppressing viral infection levels. More specific targeting and suppression of new infections are needed.

As everyone gets edgier, the weather gets warmer, and money runs short, there will be a nationwide need for more proactive testing and investigation to corral the virus by:

1. Treating all new infections with strict quarantines, monitoring, and treatment, as well as relentlessly contact-tracing the origins and branches of those new infections;

2. Continuing and expanding scientific random testing nationwide to identify and treat likely hidden pockets or reservoirs of infections, i.e.  to try to nip them in the bud; 

3. Introducing new, substantially safe anti-viral and/or anti-inflammatory therapeutic treatments to try to substantially improve patient outcomes;

4. Taking medically prudent systematic steps to begin to allow the sidelined workforce to return to work (masked and gloved) and businesses to reopen safely by prioritizing: 

a. Systematic monitoring and evaluation of the level(s) of serum antibodies in diagnosed COVID-19 survivors establishing they are safe to return to and continue to work;

b. Utilizing both serum antibody and PCR testing on exposed but apparently healthy asymptomatic citizens to establish they will not be unknowing carriers and that they are safe to return to work;

c. Prioritizing on-going testing to provide for the medical clearance of workers needed in critical areas using both serum antibody and PCR testing;

d. Establishing a prioritization cascade for serum and PCR testing of: 1) Healthy workers in non-critical areas but with high contact rate with the general populace; 2) Healthy workers in non-critical areas but with low contact rate with the general populace; 3) Non-workers in the general populace with known/identified underlying health conditions; 4) Non-workers in the general populace without known/identified underlying health conditions.

These steps are essential to immediately blunt any new viral outbreaks and minimize destabilizing seesaw surges and lulls in infections as safe return-to-work patterns are established.

Due to the scope of essential testing precaution(s), safe recovery toward some acceptable level will not be achieved in a few weeks nor likely in a couple of months.  With patience and robust safe practices (quarantines, social distancing, etc.), we could eventually achieve reasonable levels of virus suppression and control within 3-6 months.

However, major long-term success against the virus in the form of wide-spread resistance/immunity will ultimately depend on scientific development and testing of an effective, safe vaccine and administering it to many millions. Even optimistic projections put such a vaccine 12-18 months into the future.

Dan Cannon lives in Seaford. He is a retired Seaford High School biology teacher, including Advanced Placement.