WaPo editors *almost* get it: This administration is "flying blind" on pandemic

True enough, but the Washington Post editorial board misses an even more basic failure by the Biden administration. The board published an unsigned editorial late yesterday castigating the CDC and the FDA for not building a data-based approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been a failing ever since it began. However, see if you can catch the flaw in this argument:

The omicron variant of the covid-19 virus emerged around Thanksgiving. The first confirmed case in the United States was recorded Dec. 1, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the prevalence for the week ending Dec. 18 had soared to 73 percent — an astounding and alarming leap, virtually displacing the delta variant. Now, the CDC has revised that week’s estimate down to 22.5 percent, a correction that underscores how the United States is flying blind in the pandemic storm.

Undoubtedly, omicron will continue to rise, but the initial, overly high estimate is a symptom of a serious, systemic gap in public health information. We have the technology to chart the whole genome of a viral sample. But the United States has not yet built a real-time system of viral genomic surveillance that would allow comprehensive tracking of variants as they move through the population. As it is now, the CDC pulls together genomic surveillance data from a variety of sources, including its own facilities, state public health labs, and university and private laboratories, but only a fraction of all pandemic samples are sequenced, and it can take weeks to build a reliable picture of how the variant is spreading.

The CDC’s error on Omicron calculations had real-world consequences. They restricted shipping two key anti-Delta monoclonal antibody treatments, to which Omicron does not respond well, to states on the assumption that the treatment would be ineffective as all new cases would likely be Omicron. That prompted an angry response from Florida’s surgeon general, who wondered what in the hell was going on at Health and Human Services:

In a letter to the HHS Secretary, Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo ripped the agency’s recent decision to pause allocations of two monoclonal antibody treatments.

“This shortsightedness is especially evident given that the federal government effectively prohibited states from purchasing these monoclonal antibodies and serving their populations directly,” wrote Ladapo. …

But CDC data shows more than 20 percent of cases in the South are still from the Delta variant. Ladapo argued in his letter the other two treatments shouldn’t be completely off the table.

“Florida can expand treatment options for patients by distributing therapeutics to providers working in areas with a low prevalence of Omicron or clinics capable of variant screening,” Ladapo wrote.

An HHS spokesperson said in a statement that the federal government never stopped shipping antibody treatments to Florida. The state received 22,000 treatments last week alone.

“That’s in addition to the approximately 28,000 doses of product that they have on hand from their previous orders. In other words, Florida should have a strong supply of product on hand – and more than most other states,” said HHS spokesperson Kristen Allen.

But considering the state just racked up nearly 47,000 new cases in a single day, there’s an apparent imbalance between supply and demand.

So yes, we are clearly still flying blind thanks to bad data and bad data management. However, the Washington Post’s editors miss a more basic problem: where are the tests? One cannot build an efficient data management system and expect it to provide answers without data. The kind of “radar” system that the WaPo editors endorse would require abundant testing on demand and a reliable network to collate that data.

Oddly, though, the editors only mention the word “test” once in their essay, and even manage to get that wrong:

At-home diagnostic rapid tests are a growing plus, but if there is no collecting the data into a real-time surveillance system, the picture is incomplete.

Ahem. Where, exactly, are over-the-counter tests “growing” in any sense? The supply runs out with every new variant spike, and sometimes hasn’t rebounded in between. The same is true for tests conducted by health care providers and public officials. Drive-thru centers have massive lines and frequently run out before getting anywhere near satisfying the daily demand. Unduly panicked people crowd into clinics and ERs to get tested, many of them asymptomatic, which is not only unnecessary but ironically might end up creating much more transmission than otherwise would occur.

The failure to produce tests in abundance, as some of our Western allies did early in the pandemic, is what has caused us to “fly blind” for the past two years. Neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden ever put an emphasis on testing, for various reasons, although at the core both assumed vaccines would essentially kill off COVID-19. However, Joe Biden not only had three effective vaccines in hand on his first day in office, he repeatedly insisted that the Trump administration had dropped the ball on test development (true) and that he would focus on that issue … which turned out to be entirely false. It got so bad that Biden kept pretending that he just heard about the testing issue every time it came up this year, and Jen Psaki openly scoffed at the notion of a comprehensive testing program in the US just three weeks ago. And let’s not forget that Biden’s mandates have created a lot more demand for tests without bothering to ensure that supply could keep up.

Calling for a better data management system without reliable testing capability and capacity is akin to calling for a better airplane engine without any wings on which to attach it.

It’s very difficult to believe that the Post’s editors have heard nothing about the shortages of tests and the long delays and denials for those who seek them. Even if they don’t read their own paper, all these editors need to do is to walk into their local pharmacies and ask where to find the OTC COVID test kits. The omission of this basic failure, and Biden’s exacerbation of it with his workplace vaccination-or-testing mandates, smells like an intellectual dodge.