Orlando Sentinel: Return to normal in Florida requires aggressive testing regimen

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Washington, April 19, 2020 | comments
Without robust testing, the infected will unknowingly infect others, and subject Florida to continuous economic and health calamities that will ultimately strangle our economy.
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Orlando Sentinel
Commentary: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz

We all want to return quickly to a normal life but reopening our economy will not be as simple as flipping a switch. Before Florida can get everyone back to work and reopen our businesses, schools and churches, we must be smart, responsible and take action that will help us climb out of this coronavirus crisis altogether.

Until a vaccine is found, temporarily quarantining those with COVID-19 is our best and only safe way to gradually reopen Florida’s economy and communities without spreading infection and overwhelming our health care system.

To be clear: We must contact trace, test, and if needed, isolate and support all the COVID-19 patients we can. Without robust testing, the infected will unknowingly infect others, and subject Florida to continuous economic and health calamities that will ultimately strangle our economy.

How do we do it? We must continue to socially isolate to keep our health care system from being overrun, and to save lives. If we emerge too soon, without a comprehensive plan to stay ahead of the spread, we risk being forced back inside, and starting over again.

We must also keep pressing an erratic Republican President to utilize the Defense Production Act. We must provide the personal protective equipment that health care and other essential workers desperately need now and in the foreseeable future. We cannot leave our frontline soldiers unprotected in this war.

But only by quickly mobilizing aggressive testing can we move past this phase and resume life that is akin to normal. This is a huge job, so we must start now.

Unfortunately, President Trump and Governor Ron DeSantis cannot be counted on to tackle tough COVID-19 challenges. With leadership at the top absent we must mobilize civic, religious, academic, medical and business leaders to work with responsible Republicans who want to keep people safe and our economy intact.

The main hurdles beyond a leadership void are the need for robust resources and some loss in privacy. These are unpleasant truths but must be understood. No one wants to pay high contact-tracing costs, or to share personal health and movement data. But no one wants a total health and economic collapse, either.

The best contact tracing models will likely not come from the federal government. President Trump has made our nation’s response about him, not us. But certain states, both blue and red, are taking control. In Massachusetts, North Dakota and Utah, politicians, health experts, non-profits, colleges and the private sector are building strategies that nearly all public-health experts agree will allow us to awaken the economy from the medically prescribed coma it’s now in.

Again, this will not be easy. Like masks and ventilators, the diagnostic testing and tracking programs we must embrace mean overcoming shortages of swabs, chemicals and other lab supplies. And thanks to rapacious Republicans, notably former governor and now Sen. Rick Scott, Florida must dramatically re-staff its public health departments.

Contact tracing demands an army of trained staff to do the tedious work of finding people who were near an infected person, then test, treat and isolate them.

We also need to boost contact-trace technology, like the re-purposed phone app that North Dakota State University football fans used to track a 1,000-mile drive to a league title game in Texas. These and other apps can remind people where they visited if they test positive and alert them to possible contacts with infected people. Individuals can choose to share that or other information, like their daily symptoms, so state health workers can identify outbreaks. 

The better we trace people who have the virus, the more we control and curb infections and deaths. The better we do that, the faster we put people back to work and re-open Florida – and most importantly, keep it open.

I know Governor Ron DeSantis wants to get Florida’s economy humming again. We all do. But this must be a state-federal partnership to work, and the swiftest, safest way to do it, is with a strong contact tracing system.

I call on our state’s top civic, business and education leaders to press our political leadership into action. We cannot wait one day longer to lift the COVID-19 clouds from the Sunshine State.


 

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