Failure to Rollout Widespread Testing

The severe U.S. economic fallout from the pandemic is being cushioned with aggressive monetary and fiscal policy responses, but it’s also being exacerbated by policy choices, both past and present. In many respects the U.S. was always poised for a particularly rough experience with a global pandemic, relative to our advanced economy peers. Past policy failures exacerbating our current situation include the underprovision of health care and high un-insurance rates, widespread closures of hospitals in recent decades (particularly rural hospitals), a lack of paid sick leave, and a threadbare social safety net (as recently underscored by Florida’s inept unemployment insurance system). To name just a few.

Atop the more recent policy failures: Both the loss of life and depth and duration of this recession will be exacerbated by our failure to quickly roll out widespread testing and contract tracing. Public health experts agree that these are prerequisites to safely and sustainably resuming activity. Many states are now gambling by starting to reopen their economies even though their testing and  tracing capacity is negligible. And the U.S. is still nowhere close to widespread testing. Congress just appropriated $25 billion for more aggressive testing and tracing last Thursday—roughly three months after our first confirmed case and seven weeks after the first emergency response was enacted.

This testing debacle is a seismic policy failure: It didn’t have to be this way. Economists at the St. Louis Fed underscore as much in a new article. Recommended reading:

It’s widely cited that the United States and South Korea saw their first confirmed case of COVID-19 within a day of each other, in late January. The subsequent divergent public health responses of the two countries is staggering and, from an American perspective, scandalous.

Key takeaways: “Within roughly two weeks of the first confirmed case (February 7), South Korea was producing 100,000 test kits per day… By the end of February, South Koreans were urged to stay home and the South Korean government had created drive-through testing centers designed to screen as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.”

Simply put, the U.S. squandered this time

“[B]y the U.S. national emergency date (March 13), its daily testing rate was only 19 tests per 1 million people, while South Korea’s daily testing rate had reached 267 tests per 1 million people, higher by a factor of 14 (Figure 2).” Here’s Figure 2 from their article:


A similarly divergent story is told contrasting the U.S. with Germany, as previously noted.

Sustainable economic recovery from this pandemic recession will first require containing the virus, and we wasted months on that front, exacerbating loss of life and economic hardship alike. It didn’t have to be that way.

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