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Flying blind through a pandemic

Early in my career in government service, I learned a lesson about human nature — as it finds expression in government bureaucracy — that has served me well in trying to understand our government’s response to the global pandemic. 

In the early 1990s, New Jersey’s legislature required that the schools administer a “fourth-grade test,” which in theory would assist policymakers in adjusting curricula to meet the needs exposed by the test results. The initial results were disappointing, but not as disappointing as the recommendation from the bureaucracy about what to do: “Stop testing! Stop administering the fourth-grade test!”

Once I recovered from my initial shock, I had to acknowledge a certain genius to this approach:  Why continue measuring a problem you doubt that you can solve?

I have thought of that epiphany often during the past two-plus years of COVID-19, as I watched the government choose repeatedly not to know just how infected “We, the people” were.

It started in the early days of the pandemic, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — whose reputation for solid, science-based recommendations for public health may never recover — rejected the use of tests developed in other countries, insisting that it was developing its own test for the virus. Precious weeks of situational awareness were lost as the nation awaited the arrival of the CDC test, which proved faulty

In many ways we have never recovered. We have never tested comprehensively for infections; as a result of our partial awareness, recommended measures from masking to social distancing to vaccinating, lacking a reliable baseline measure as a rationale, have been open to question. 

Former President Trump, an accelerant to any conflagration, openly disparaged testing in the early days of the pandemic, concluding that once you test, you no longer can deny a pandemic. Cruise ships were sent packing because we didn’t want to know whether the virus was on board and, therefore, to “own” the virus. Trump initially refused to invoke the Defense Production Act to manufacture COVID tests on a scale that would enable public health officials to understand the depths of infection and act accordingly. 

But the Democrats have been just as irresponsible. On the campaign trail, President Biden declared defiantly that we were going to beat the virus. “I’m never going to raise the white flag and surrender,” he said confidently. “We’re going to beat this virus. We’re going to get it under control.”  His health care bureaucracy also declared — based on nothing resembling test results — in the spring of 2021 that those who were vaccinated could safely remove their masks and assemble without maintaining social distancing. 

Then reality struck.

By July 2021, the administration’s widely proclaimed “summer of freedom” from the virus essentially ended. Vaccinated people, it turned out, could still contract the virus, although their symptoms were likely to be less severe, and potentially could infect others. Masking in some settings was now recommended even for vaccinated people.   

The drumbeat of fatalities, meanwhile, continued throughout the year as the nation struggled to cope with the Delta variant. COVID fatalities, which numbered 339,294 as of Jan. 1, 2021, according to a New York Times tracker, more than doubled to 821,000 by late December. All that bad news preceded the emergence of the Omicron variant.

In announcing plans to confront Omicron, the Biden administration altered fundamentally both its tone and its approach. There was no more talk of “beating” the virus; the administration’s purpose now, as CNN reported, was to prepare “a nation exhausted by two years of battling the invisible enemy to live more feasibly alongside it.” The CDC shortened its quarantine period for people exposed to the virus — based not so much on science, but on “what we thought people would be able to tolerate.”  

The bureaucracy took this new approach to heart, revising its metrics to essentially render the public health sector completely blind. As an open letter, co-signed by dozens of front-line responders noted, “[I]n late February, the … CDC unveiled a new Covid monitoring system based on what they called `Community Levels.’”  This new system, adopted on the eve of the State of the Union Address, completely disregarded the importance of transmission of the virus, and thus, as the first responders put it, “turned what was a pandemic map still red from Omicron transmission to green – creating the false impression that the pandemic is over.”   

This shift in metrics, the experts concluded in February, “reflected no real reduction in transmission risk.  It was … an effort to craft a success story that would explain away hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths and the continued threat the virus poses.” 

By focusing on a lagging indicator — hospitalizations — the new metrics delay action until a surge is underway and the vulnerable may be dying. “Making matters worse,” the experts concluded, “at home tests are not recorded … so the only `early indicator’ in the risk level calculation grossly undercounts the true number of cases.” 

But really, there’s nothing new here. By choice, we have been flying blind throughout this entire pandemic. We have never attempted to test our population universally. Such an approach may have made basic public health measures such as vaccinating, masking and social distancing less necessary or, in any event, easier to justify based on a firm knowledge of who was contagious. 

A few years ago, I facilitated a number of table-top exercises for federal and state officials designed to test preparedness for terrorist attacks and public health emergencies. I started each exercise with this observation, designed to get the participants’ attention: “Today we will find out how many people will die as a result of the decisions you will make.” 

From the outset, we have treated COVID like New Jersey’s fourth-grade test — that is, essentially not wanting to know how widespread the infection had become. But willful ignorance was rejected as an educational solution in New Jersey, perhaps from a realization that at the end of the day, you can’t escape the numbers. 

The pandemic stands as tragic proof. We may not have known the number of people infected at any given point, but as of this week, we do know a number that tolls the bell of our willful blindness: 1 million. That’s 1 million Americans dead, or nearly 1 in 300 of us. It’s the highest fatality rate in the world. Shame on us.  

John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.  

Tags COVID testing COVID-19 pandemic Donald Trump Joe Biden Masking US covid deaths Vaccination

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