At least it’s not “Meth. We’re on it.”
That may be the best that can be said for Governor Kristi Noem’s recently unveiled “Back to Normal” plan, the very title of which underplays the long-term COVID-19 challenge facing South Dakota and the country.
We all chafe at the extended limits on our movement, at our inability to gather and socialize with friends and loved ones. Prolonged confinement and the lack of available options to let off steam are driving sharp increases in mental health problems and domestic violence.
The economic implications are equally dire, as Sioux Falls business owners clamor for restrictions to ease so they can begin the path to recovery or, in some cases, keep from closing their doors for good.
But the “normal” that most of us enjoyed only a few short months ago won’t be snapping smartly back into place anytime soon. We can’t achieve the relative relief of even a “new normal” until an effective vaccine is developed and widely administered. Even then, a great deal of work remains to be done.
So what is the plan in the meantime? It depends on who you ask. The problem with a lack of statewide direction, whether with restrictions or the removal of them, is that municipalities and businesses are left to their own accord to make serious public health decisions. Those decisions affect not just them but everyone their citizens or customers come in contact with if something goes awry.
We agree that it’s possible to phase in more “normal” flow of social and business structures, such as opening parks and some work spaces with proper safety guidelines. But these steps should include standardized procedures for implementation and monitoring, not a vague series of frequently asked questions.
In order to live with the virus in our midst, we need to continue to improve our understanding of how to reduce infections and protect the people and places that are most vulnerable.
Noem acknowledges as much, but to a limited degree. “A big requirement of (how we could get back to normal) is that I have the ability to aggressively test from border to border across the entire state of South Dakota,” she said last week.
At the “Back to Normal” press briefing, Secretary of Health Kim Malsam-Rysdon said that the state’s current capacity of 3,000 tests per day will ramp up to 5,000 per day in the coming weeks. Unfortunately, that’s well short of the recommended rate to “help ensure a safe social opening (and) fully re-mobilize the economy,” according to Harvard University’s bipartisan “Roadmap to Pandemic Resilience” report.
The governor added that the number of tests conducted each day in the state is determined by doctors ordering the test for their patients and isn’t decided by the state. Only symptomatic South Dakotans are being tested, and her “Back to Normal” plan calls for more of the same. That’s not the kind of comprehensive epidemiological approach our state should take moving forward.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease director Anthony Fauci says that “somewhere between 25 percent and 50 percent” of those infected with COVID-19 may never show symptoms or become sick yet can still transmit the virus to others.
For those who do eventually fall ill, the average delay from infection to symptom onset is five days. More of the virus is shed in earlier stages of the infection. That’s why experts emphasize the need to test not only people showing symptoms but also – at minimum – continue to randomly test samples of the general population.
Though the spike of the Smithfield outbreak and variances in the number of daily tests obscure the trend line, infections continue unabated, controlled only by mitigation efforts. Our testing rates, however, are going down. That’s a baffling juxtaposition given the testing capacity Noem’s administration says we possess, especially as we inch closer to the projected mid-June peak infection rate.
Meanwhile, the governor promises a continuation of her laissez faire tactics. “I am not announcing any new government programs, more red tape, more prescriptive phases or tight controls. That is not South Dakota. Rather, the plan I’m unveiling today puts the power into the hands of the people where it belongs,” Noem said.
The problem is that we will need coordinated systems in place to help us live with the virus more safely. Temperature checks, serology tests and increased contact tracing to contain clusters cannot be left up to individuals or individual businesses. As the Smithfield outbreak shows, heralding “personal responsibility” and urging businesses to “innovate” isn’t necessarily sufficient to impel changes in corporate behavior, especially with social and economic urgencies at play.
With the coronavirus pandemic striking fear, Americans are in favor of the federal government doing more to combat the health and economic effects. USA TODAY
The governor press briefings also regularly include a litany of other too-familiar phrases. We can’t stop the virus. People will be infected. We’ve flattened the curve. Our hospitals will not be overwhelmed by the surge. Such statements sidestep other important considerations. We want to slow the spread not just to maintain adequate health system capacity, but to give researchers time to identify better treatments as well as find a vaccine. Each passing day reveals another devastating way that COVID-19 lays waste to the human body.
The need to craft a continuing public-private partnership between state health officials and our major health systems is paramount, particularly as we look to avoid anticipated viral flareups in the coming fall and winter months. That doesn’t mean more high-profile collaborative panders to the White House such as the hastily conceived statewide hydroxychloroquine trial. There are too many unknowns still to be uncovered about COVID-19; we need to prepare for a full range of outcomes.
The pandemic doesn’t present a simple tug-of-war between the economy and public health. The two are intertwined; neither can thrive without the other. People will not flock to restaurants, malls and sporting events unless they have a degree of confidence that they are not jeopardizing their health or that of their loved ones.
As stated earlier, full confidence won’t come until a vaccine arrives. In the meantime, a carefully crafted and well-articulated statewide plan that leans on enhanced testing, monitoring and mitigation would be the best way to restore confidence that “normal” is within reach.
Until then, we’re left to figure it out on our own.
The Argus Leader Editorial Board consists of Argus Leader News Director Cory Myers, Argus Leader Editor Stu Whitney and community member Sharon Schulz-Elsing.
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