In other places, the criteria have prevented residents from understanding the true extent of community spread. Nebraska, which hewed closely to the rules, insisted it had only one case of community spread, even as suspicious cases filled ICUs, according to a 35-year-old doctor who asked not to be named, because she was not authorized to speak with the press. Nebraska announced its second case of community spread on Wednesday. The state has tested 800 people, total, for the coronavirus, the chief medical officer said.
The federal government’s reliance on CDC data about the severity of the outbreak froze efforts to stop it. Even after Bedford’s warning, the government published no studies of viral mutation. The void forced leaders to act on the basis of risk, not solid information. How could a mayor shut down her city if it had only 10 for-sure cases? How could a CEO tell employees to call off their trips—and not to Western Europe or central China, but to Seattle?
American cities, blinded by the lack of testing data, did little as crucial days went by. On March 7, as the severity of the local outbreak was becoming known, huge events were allowed to go on. More than 30,000 people attended a Seattle Sounders game that night. No one wanted to say what has now become clear: February was our chance to get this right. We lost that entire month. And we now live in a new era of work stoppages, overwhelmed hospitals, dead elders, and a wrecked economy.
No one had the guts to say what needed to be said over the past month: To save our people, we will have to keep our cities in a chokehold and decimate our economy. It would have taken guts and the full-throated backing of every level of government and agency, as well as irrefutable data, for local officials to do something like that. No one told them to, and the data did not exist for them to come to that conclusion on their own.
Without strong federal leadership, each state has been going after its own solutions and running its own show, as if its residents would stay neatly within their own state lines. Despite the rising number of cases and hospitalizations, President Trump tried to use partisan rhetorical tactics to fight the virus, and in so doing, encouraged Americans to ignore legitimate, dire warnings. Now, though Trump has begun to mobilize a response to the pandemic, his base has been slow to acknowledge that precautions are necessary. This dangerous remove from reality was possible for too long because of the absence of data showing how bad things already were.
Ironically, given that the debacle started with testing, it may end there as well. South Korea, which on March 1 was the site of the largest confirmed coronavirus outbreak outside of China, has aggressively tested a huge percentage of its population, and continues to screen massive numbers of people. Now, just three weeks later, new COVID-19 cases are declining, and only 102 people have died as of Friday. Washington State, with one-seventh the population of South Korea, already has 83 fatalities. The U.S. caseload has ballooned to almost 20,000, more than twice South Korea’s total. Bedford and other experts believe that Korean-style massive-scale testing will be essential to restoring normal economic conditions. “This is the Apollo program of our times,” he said this week. “Let’s get to it.”
A week ago, an NBC reporter asked Trump during a White House briefing whether he took responsibility for the deadly testing delays. His reply was immediate: “No. I don’t take responsibility at all.”
Frankie Dintino, Quinn Ryan, Jacob Stern, and Ed Yong contributed to this report.
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is a staff writer at The Atlantic
, where he covers climate change and technology.