I had hoped, maybe somewhere in the denial/bargaining stage of processing the coronavirus testing debacle, that at least our state officials were on top of the situation, and at least giving us reliable information.
The evidence before us suggests that the Baker administration is also blowing it. I wish that weren’t so.
Last week, an eternity ago by the punishing exponential math of this epidemic, Biogen officials reached out to the state, trying to get tests for its conferees. Like the case at the Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, they were told no, you don’t qualify. How’s that for a Catch-22?
Biogen officials reached out to public health authorities in Massachusetts on March 3, according to a document obtained by the Globe, to report a cluster of about 50 conference attendees with flu-like symptoms in this region and overseas. Those officials were told that the cases did not satisfy requirements for testing.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Mass. Department of Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel noted that we were getting 2,000 new coronovirus tests from the federal government, and insisted that we had enough tests. That raised an eyebrow for me: Enough for what? Enough for the constrained criteria that keep numbers artificially low? You can’t count what you can’t test. Are we testing in sufficient numbers to estimate the scale of the threat?
Federal and state health officials have kept strict limits on who can be tested for the coronavirus, forcing physicians to turn patients away who they believe should be tested, according to doctors and patients. And while the testing shortage is a national crisis that originated with the Centers for Disease Control, other states are testing more people than Massachusetts and have been significantly more transparent about the scope of testing, a key component to containing the virus.
… But at Massachusetts General Hospital on Wednesday, Dr. Monique Aurora Tello described seeing eight people with probable coronavirus, some of whom had recently been on buses and planes — and being unable to test some of the suspected cases.
“Testing pending for some but the State wouldn’t let us test them all,” Aurora Tello wrote on Facebook. “Not enough tests!!”
No, Commissioner Bharel, we don’t have enough tests. And that lack of information and transparency is affecting the advice we’re getting from the state, from local officials, from school officials, all the way down the line. Our major universities, perhaps responding to their own in-house set of experts, have made much bolder and quicker decisions. Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Emerson, Smith, Amherst, et al are shutting down their in-person classes. (I was prepared to teach my lessons today online … but my students all cancelled, since they’re required to be off-campus, out of their dorm rooms by Monday.)
This is a debacle, a scandal that will have an immense human toll. Federal incompetence explains part of it, but only part.We’re just sitting here, a situation far beyond our control, completely at the mercy of the aptitude of our leaders, waiting for someone to get it right.
Update: God help us all. Bloomberg: Massachusetts Virus Outbreak Looks Like Italy’s Just Two Weeks Ago
“Massachusetts is smaller than Italy,” said Sam Scarpino, an assistant professor of network science who heads the epidemics lab at Northeastern. “It has about 100 cases. There were 159 cases in Italy two weeks ago. That’s where we’re headed. We’ve got to move now and decisively prepare hospitals, work remotely and ramp up testing.”
… It may take another week before Scarpino has enough testing data to make any public predictions about the scope of community spread in Massachusetts. But he’s leaning toward the idea that the actual number of infected state residents is likely many multiples of the 95 positive tests announced as of Wednesday. Based on the experience in Italy, China and South Korea, he said, the number of new cases is doubling every four to seven days.