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Without improved coronavirus testing, even California’s slow-motion reopening is bound to be trouble

Original Article: https://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/editorials/article/Editorial-Without-improved-coronavirus-testing-15528793.php


Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new color-coded plan for reopening California is “stubborn,” “stringent and slow,” by his own account. It’s an improvement on his attempt in the spring, which allowed counties to rapidly resume commerce and brought about an entirely predictable surge of infections that has only recently begun to abate. Newsom’s renewed emphasis on caution is also in contrast with the White House, which appears to be drifting toward a so-called herd immunity strategy that amounts to letting the virus run amok.


And yet the state and federal responses to the pandemic still share a key weakness in testing. Soon after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed guidelines to discourage testing of asymptomatic individuals, who are thought to be crucial to the coronavirus’ spread, Newsom’s revised reopening downplayed testing and tracing benchmarks. And while the governor announced a deal to dramatically improve the state’s testing rates, some activities will resume before the added capacity is in place.

California’s new system allows nonessential indoor commerce to resume once counties reduce cases as a share of population and tests administered. It imposes a minimum three-week stay at each tier, which should prevent officials from easing restrictions further before they have had time to evaluate the effects of earlier loosening, as happened in May and June.


Because most of the Bay Area is classified as experiencing “widespread” transmission, the highest tier, the new system will have limited effects in the short-term for most of the region. San Francisco and Napa County, however, are classified as areas of “substantial” spread, the second-highest, allowing more indoor business at limited capacity, as well as school instruction, though city officials are exercising appropriate caution about proceeding. With little explanation, the governor also cleared the way for salons and barbershops to reopen subject to restrictions statewide.


Even at a deliberate pace, reopening indoor activities at current levels of transmission, which are generally higher than they were for the first reopening, is likely to lead to more outbreaks. Containing those infections will require testing, tracing and isolation, none of which are explicitly considered under the state’s new regime.


California is still struggling with insufficient testing and excessive delays in returning results. While the new testing contract is expected to address that, it isn’t expected to begin making a difference until November or to be fully implemented until March.


The federal retreat from testing comes amid signs of renewed interest within the Trump administration in the goal of herd immunity, the level of infection necessary to protect the entire population. Even using the most optimistic estimates of the necessary spread and fatality rate, that would mean hundreds of thousands more deaths; at the middle ranges, it would mean 2 million.


Such figures reinforce the point that without a vaccine, ready and rapid detection of the virus remains essential to any resumption of normalcy.

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