Lives have been lost in the U.S. and many more will die because of the nation’s lack of readiness for a pandemic on the scale of the coronavirus.

The New York Times reported that large-scale testing of Americans who might have been infected with the coronavirus didn’t occur between January and early March as it spread from China and across the U.S.

The newspaper’s report was based on interviews with more than 50 current and former public health officials, administration officials, senior scientists and company executives. According to the interviews, this failure was due to “technical flaws, regulatory hurdles, business-as-usual bureaucracies and lack of leadership at multiple levels.”

As a result, a month-long period that was our nation’s best opportunity for limiting the coronavirus’ spread was lost. “Instead, Americans were left largely blind to the scale of a looming public health catastrophe,” the Times stated.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a top government scientist involved in the fight against the virus, affirmed this failing when he spoke to Congress about the lack of early testing.

The debate over who is to blame for this will be intense, but there is no way around ultimate responsibility lying at the highest levels of the federal government. Likewise, the leadership for implementing changes in our healthcare system, emergency preparedness and other areas based on lessons learned should come from the federal government.

Meanwhile, decisions impacting people’s health and their economic well-being must be made without the benefit of good data from widespread COVID-19 testing because of the need to conserve virus testing kits and personal protective equipment for medical personnel.

Under changes made last week in testing priorities, people with less severe symptoms, no underlying medical conditions, aren’t senior citizens and aren’t healthcare or emergency medical personnel are discouraged from getting tested. This change in priorities is in accordance with U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidance and was done even though health officials know a substantial portion of people with COVID-19 will display little or no symptoms. The World Health Organization is urging countries to do more testing.

People with slight symptoms who aren’t tested are instructed to self-quarantine, but it’s reasonable to expect many will keep moving around and infecting others if their cases aren’t confirmed. Making matters worse is the large number of people with high uninsured rates and high out-of-pocket expenses who might not seek care because of the costs.

Zach Moore, state epidemiologist, affirmed the lack of good data when he told the News & Observer in Raleigh that daily totals of confirmed COVID-19 cases don’t accurately portray how widespread the disease is in North Carolina. As the virus becomes more widespread “the difference between the case counts and the actual disease get bigger. We have to accept that those case counts are a very imperfect way of tackling it,” Moore said.

This lack of reliable data will make it hard to come up with accurate mortality rates from COVID-19.

Because of the lack of good data on the virus statewide but proof of its severity elsewhere, Gov. Roy Cooper was right in issuing a statewide stay at home order. The public must take this seriously and comply.

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