Is the horse out of the barn for COVID-19?

A few motorists travel on South Lake Powell Boulevard on Monday, March 23, 2020, in Page, Arizona. Photo by Antonia Muskat/Lake Powell Chronicle

By Bob Hembree
Lake Powell Chronicle

PAGE – Coconino County COVID-19 response team said they are running out of test kits and pleading for help from state and federal agencies. The county was the first in Arizona to get on top of things by setting up specimen collections sites for the novel coronavirus. The demand is far greater than the supply. Arizona, despite being one of the first states to report a COVID-19 case, is one of the least prepared states in the country.

While the country, as a whole, is behind the curve, some states are worse than others. For example, Arizona, with a population of about 7.4 million people, as of Sunday, reported 521 tests. New Mexico, with around 2 million people, performed 4,779 tests. A state the third our size, testing almost 10 times as many of their citizens.

There’s a shortage of testing kits, and other supplies necessary to handle this pandemic. It’s not only testing kits needed to collect specimens from swabs, it’s the kits needed by laboratories to read the results. There are currently two primary ways of analyzing specimens, and they both require unique equipment. Laboratories generally use one or the other, so the collection side has to match the laboratory side – it has to match their equipment, or they may have to get new equipment and train technicians how to use it. This help explains why doctors report long waits for test results. Another concern is the chemicals needed for the kits used on the laboratory. They’ve become scarce.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield told POLITICO he isn’t confident U.S. labs have an adequate stock of the supplies used to extract genetic material from any virus in a patient’s sample. This is a critical step in coronavirus testing. Redfield said, “I’m confident of the actual test that we have, but as people begin to operationalize the test, they realize there’s other things they need to do the test.” The RNA extraction is the first step. The test cannot be performed without it.

Because of the shortages, some have given up on the extensive testing recommended by the World Health Organization. California public health officials said they have to stop tracing contacts of patients diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, and they’ve stopped recommending quarantines for residents exposed to people confirmed to have the virus.

Peter Beilenson, director of Sacramento County’s department of health services said, “If you really wanted to quarantine and contain the situation, you would have wanted to know who was positive and quarantine them. Because we never had the tests, it’s kind of a moot point, and the horse is out of the barn.” 

Epidemiologist Jason Moore expressed in a recorded interview with Mayor Levi Tappan March 20. “The vast majority of people who are going to contract this disease probably already have been exposed.”

The problem is we don’t know who is or who has been infected by the coronavirus. Antibody tests are in the works to find out if anyone has unwittingly contracted COVID-19 and recovered without incident. The country simply doesn’t have the level of health resources needed; it doesn’t have an adequate infrastructure for a pandemic.

Now the focus is on treating victims. Ventilators, masks, ICU beds and other supplies are needed. Vehicle manufacturers are offering help. Elon Musk, whose company specializes in high technology production, said he’s ready to begin producing ventilators if needed.

According to Tech Crunch, “In a great example of what can happen when smart, technically-oriented people come together in a time of need, an open-source hardware project started by a group including Irish entrepreneur Colin Keogh and Breeze Automation CEO and co-founder Gui Calavanti has produced a prototype ventilator using 3D-printed parts and readily available, inexpensive material.

“The ventilator prototype was designed and produced in just seven days, after the project spun up on Facebook and attracted participation from over 300 engineers, medical professionals and researchers.”
Should people not worry about the spread of the virus anymore? Of course not. Little is known about the virus or the extent of the spread. There aren’t enough tests and results and data to make decisions like this. Physician Gay McManus Walker told this reporter, “We’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.”