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[Trudy Rubin] Data sans politics can curb virus

Back in the 1950s, Sgt. Joe Friday of the TV show “Dragnet” famously advised witnesses: “Just the facts, ma’am.” That phrase became a national slogan, long before the very concept of “facts” was clouded by social media.

As the number of coronavirus cases soars, with Americans anxious to know when stay-at-home orders will end, we desperately need the facts, based on reliable data.

Instead, we are deluged with COVID-19 misinformation from the White House and all over the world.

No one should be surprised that Russia and China are promoting the online lie that the virus is a US bioweapon. They are also playing on America’s political divisions over the virus, while hiding their own egregious errors and their true number of cases.

More disturbing is the tsunami of fake facts on the home front. President Donald Trump continues to spin medical misinformation daily, along with attacks on scientists or governors who question his handling of the virus. This feeds into the far-right’s endless conspiracy theories, the latest being the claim that Dr. Anthony Fauci is part of a secret cabal to undermine Trump.

Even the sainted Fauci -- who, with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has become the voice of reason on COVID-19 -- can’t give us the necessary answers, because the US still doesn’t have the data. And we don’t have the data because we still aren’t doing enough testing.

We aren’t doing enough testing because the testing process has become bogged down in partisan politics.

President Trump says 1 million tests have now been done in the country. But we still lag many countries in per capita testing. And there’s no sign the White House has developed a nationwide policy of representative random sampling, including in geographical areas that still appear to have few cases.

“I’ve heard nothing from epidemiologists or schools of public health to corroborate those numbers, or this level of testing,” says public health expert David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. “If the data are available, where are they? They should be in the public domain.

“We need representative random sampling of given populations for infections and immune status,” Katz told me.

Without sampling asymptomatic populations, he says, scientists can’t know how widespread the disease is, how many have recovered and whether we can transfer antibodies. They can’t know to what extent those without symptoms transfer the disease, or what percentage of younger people get infected. They can’t stop new hot spots from emerging after we come out of hiding.

Equally important, without the testing data, scientists can’t map out a middle path between self-isolating and getting back to normal life too quickly.

A few weeks ago, Katz wrote a widely noted New York Times op-ed titled “Is our fight against coronavirus worse than the disease?” which some believe encouraged Trump to advocate the lifting of self-isolation by Easter.

That is a misunderstanding of his thesis, Katz says. His point: Only with representative random sampling can we determine if it’s safe for the healthy under-50 population to return to work relatively soon, while the at-risk populations self-isolate for longer. “This would establish a timeline to get back to life as we know it,” he says.

It would also avoid prolonging a growing economic crisis that will adversely affect public health.

Ideally the government would convene public health teams to collect the data all across the country and assist with contact tracing. They would test populations without signs of the virus. The data and methods would be made transparent.

Instead, we still have a fractured state-by-state system, with no national strategy of the public health manpower for testing, even if new, faster tests come on line soon. Without the data, we will be sheltering in place for much longer.

Yet, astonishingly, President Trump said Monday, “I haven’t heard about testing being a problem.” Even as several governors were telling him they still were short of test kits. He has slammed the beleaguered governors of Michigan and Washington as “that woman” and a “snake.”

The testing process remains mired in partisan politics, as Trump disses Democratic governors while favoring Republicans like Florida’s Ron DeSantis. A chaotic White House seems unable to lead the nation as a whole.

Cuomo promoted the right approach (after Trump falsely attacked him over his desperate demand for more ventilators.) “I’m not going to engage in politics (on coronavirus). It’s anti-American,” said the governor. “We are at war. There is no red and blue, it’s red, white and blue.”

Without the Cuomo approach, the White House can’t return the country to normal in the near term. It can’t amass the data we need to get back to work before we, and the economy, go bonkers. It can’t provide the public, irrespective of political party, with the facts to set us free.


Trudy Rubin
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. -- Ed.

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