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The Testing Fallacy

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The following is a guest column from our friend, Mark Siettmann.

The media (and the liberals they generally support) have shifted their focus now that hospitals are not being overrun in most of the United States.  The availability of ventilators is well above the need. Gone is the goal of “flattening the curve” to make sure everyone infected has a chance to be treated. The new goal seems to be to somehow “kill” the virus by continuing to lock down the country. They say we can’t re-open without expansive testing to see who is currently infected.

More testing is not the answer.

Currently, we are mostly testing those with severe symptoms and those in harm’s way (close contacts, medical professionals, first responders.)

About 80% of those who are tested, test negative. With more testing studies show that 90% or more will test negative (as we start to test those without any symptoms at all.)

Every single one of those negative tests is a worthless result. The result tells us nothing about the spread of the virus or who may have already had it. In fact, those negative results have the possibility of being dangerous, because someone who tests negative today could be infected tomorrow. It could give a false sense of security which could have severe negative effects.

But, you say, we will know who is a COVID carrier so we can isolate them and contact those with whom they have interacted!  Well, not so fast.  We, at best, will know a small percentage of those who have COVID.  There is no possible way we can test enough people in a country of 330 million to isolate everyone who has it (and there never was that possibility.) It’s unlikely that even with a rigorous testing program AND civic cooperation that we would know even 25 percent of carriers.

And that would only be a snapshot of the day they were tested. We would have to test everyone again the next day to make sure anyone who tested negative still was. And, they might know who they encountered, but that could include dozens more people and may include anyone who shopped at a grocery store at a certain time.  It would be difficult if not impossible to test all those contacts.

Yet “testing” is the new rallying cry of those who are resistant to re-opening the economy. Not hospitalizations, not ICU bed availability, not ventilator availability (although keeping those unburdened was the stated original goal.) It is worth asking why.

From the beginning, I have taken COVID-19 seriously. My family includes several high-risk individuals. We have stayed home except for grocery runs and kept those to a minimum. But two members of my family have been able to work from home. The household income is down, but we will survive. Not every American household is so lucky.

We need to have a plan to re-open the economy. The plan should be specific, data-driven, and hyper-local. But any plan that includes testing as a floor ignores the obvious flaws. Our leaders are under enormous pressure, and some have done better than others.  Now is the time for them all to step up, and recognize that logic and data will best lead them through this difficult time.

Mark Siettmann is a policy, politics, and communications professional with experience at multiple levels of government and political campaigns.


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