With No U.S. Plan to Return to Normal, Some States Are Creating Their Own

By: - April 10, 2020 12:00 am

Carmel Police block a section of the Monon Trail in Carmel, Indiana. The Indianapolis suburb plans to test staff who interact with the public weekly, quarantining those who test positive. Michael Conroy/The Associated Press

Read Stateline coverage of the latest state action on coronavirus.

America doesn’t have a plan to return to normal. The federal government’s failure to produce one could leave millions of workers, students and families stuck inside even after hospitals and first responders have weathered the initial crisis.

Reopening society, experts say, will require the regular testing of millions of people, a reliable and fast nationwide reporting network and an army of thousands of investigators tasked with tracking down those who may have been exposed to the virus. Experts have compared this to the effort to put a man on the moon and the Manhattan Project.

The federal government has yet to produce even the framework of a plan — let alone the supplies and workforce to carry it out — leaving states and local governments to cobble together their own tenuous roadmaps. 

“It really does need to be started by the federal government,” said Gigi Gronvall, an immunology specialist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It’s not something that you can just throw together. It should be worked on now while the tests are coming online and not weeks and weeks down the road.”

When the health emergency does abate, governors will face political pressure to loosen restrictions on business, travel and socializing. But experts say doing so without a widespread testing system only invites a second outbreak. 

“The move toward less restrictive physical distancing could precipitate another period of acceleration in case counts,” reads a roadmap written by several public health experts, including former U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, which calls for “careful surveillance” before lockdowns are lifted. The report was published independently by the American Enterprise Institute, the right-leaning Washington, D.C., think tank where Gottlieb is a resident fellow.

The 16-page report drafted by Gottlieb and others is the most prominent plan for society’s return to normal. It calls for a “comprehensive national sentinel surveillance system.” But state officials say the U.S. government has proven inept, and they’re forging ahead with their own plans instead of waiting for its playbook. Whether those plans prove viable without real federal support is an unanswered question.

“With a strong federal presence, we could be so much further forward in terms of our public health response,” said San Francisco Assessor Carmen Chu, who serves on the task force planning the city’s recovery. “The lack of leadership at the federal level has hurt us. … We really can’t do it alone.”

Even if the health care crisis evaporated overnight, not one state currently has a sufficient testing and tracing system to begin easing restrictions, according to another report on testing from Gottlieb and others. 

“[Reopening society] is going to come down to how good we are with testing,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said in a news conference this week. “You have 19 million people in the state of New York. Just think of how many people you would need to be able to test and test quickly.”

Cuomo said ramping up testing to the necessary scale will be an enormous effort, and he’s working with the Democratic governors of New Jersey and Connecticut to coordinate a regional plan. 

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Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.