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OpinionEditorial

Testing & tracing

Credit: Getty Images / smartboy10

The staggering drop in U.S. economic activity during the second quarter of 2020 must serve as a warning: we need to learn how to live safely and productively with the coronavirus.

This worrisome tailspin came from the necessary mass shutdown of economic activity, crucial to slowing the spread of the coronavirus. To avoid those shutdowns going forward so the economy can rebound, there must be a steadfast commitment to the test and trace programs that are a proven way of keeping infection rates stabilized when regions aren't inundated.

Long Island, thankfully, is in good shape. The region’s infection rate has been hovering around 1%, meaning we can and must focus on minimizing outbreaks by contact tracing, the process of identifying infected individuals and the people and places with which they cross paths. These tracers are trained to hit the phones to track down those who may have been touched by the virus. Tracing goes hand-in-hand with testing, so that infected people know to stay at home and sit tight.

Unfortunately, Long Islanders are seeing some standard coronavirus tests take five, seven or even more days for results. Clearly, that’s too long to be of much use. Try remembering where you were, what you touched, and who you saw two weeks ago when a contact tracer calls. The virus could have spread far and wide by that point, even if you have a great memory. People should isolate while they await the results, but that's difficult and many don’t.

Faster tests

Long Island hospitals have been able to turn around tests much faster, within minutes or hours for high-priority patients and perhaps a day or two for more routine testing. State-run and state-partnered testing sites have had a better track record, too, thanks to a network of labs working to process results. But the big commercial labs used by many providers are now inundated, trying to process tests around the country, as cases spike outside the New York region.

This is too complicated a problem for states and hospitals to handle alone. There is a long list of supplies needed to conduct the crucial coronavirus tests, including nasopharyngeal swabs and high-quality reagents. Providers across the country are being driven to desperate straits. Northwell Health, one of the health care systems at the forefront of the pandemic in New York, has been 3D-printing its own swabs, and Senior Vice President of Laboratory Services James Crawford says a new potential shortage may be on the horizon, of devices called “pipette tips" into which fluid samples are drawn.

Yet in the face of all this, shamefully, the federal government is barely lumbering into gear. Washington must use every tool in its arsenal to increase production of necessary materials and machinery. There must be strong national coordination of laboratories processing the testing.

And that’s just for the regular tests. It would be great if the United States, the country which has churned out battleships when needed, could pull off accurate rapid testing or even home tests which would make it easier for businesses and schools to get back to normal.

Other countries like South Korea have been far quicker and more efficient with testing.

On the trace

On the local level, the state and counties must do their best to maintain and improve tracing and testing. This spring, both counties increased their tracing capacities as the pandemic deepened. Dozens of tracers are typically working on Long Island each day, and the counties say they have a sufficient pool of trained tracers to draw from if there are spikes. That pool must be even more prepared as flu season starts in the coming months.

Beyond the question of who’s on call is the need for tracers to track down their targets. The counties and the state say their tracers are reaching most of the infected individuals and their contacts, but better metrics should be available. Nassau County’s tracing system was tracked on paper earlier in the pandemic, though it eventually moved to an electronic state-implemented program. More information on an accessible public dashboard would instill confidence about the tracers’ important work.

For testing, the state has a helpful website, https://coronavirus.health.ny.gov/find-test-site-near-you, where Long Islanders can enter their addresses and find nearby testing sites of various kinds. This is good information, though estimates on how long each location takes to return results would be even better so test-takers can plan ahead.

Tests are free at state-run sites.

While much of the rest of the country is on fire, and with many infectious disease specialists projecting no end in immediate sight, we are still in the middle of this pandemic. Another big shutdown here could become necessary, but we must do everything possible to prevent that from happening. Now is the time to shore up our tracing and drastically speed up our testing capacity, so we’re not caught unawares if little spikes on Long Island become large ones.

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