Coronavirus: No state meets criteria to safely reopen, even as some push ahead, Congress told

No US state currently meets the testing, contact tracing, and other standards required to reopen its economy safely amid the coronavirus pandemic, an epidemiological expert told Congress this week, even as many states have begun lifting stay-at-home orders and restrictions on non-essential businesses.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (CHS) released a four-point checklist in April meant to help states ensure they are lifting restrictions at an appropriate time. Those criteria were:

  • A decline in the number of new cases for 14 straight days;
  • A diagnostic testing capacity for anyone with Covid-19 symptoms, those who have come into close contact with them, and anyone else in “essential roles”;
  • A health care system with the capacity to care for anyone who contracts Covid-19 and has enough personal protective equipment for health care workers;
  • A robust contact tracing regime for all new cases and their close contacts.

“There are no states that meet all four of those criteria,” Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins CHS, testified on Wednesday before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on labour, health and human services, education, and related agencies.

Twenty-four states, mostly with Republican governors, have already begun partially reopening their economies. Jared Polis of Colorado is the only Democratic governor who has partially reopened his state so far.

Ms Rivers warned that if states reopen too quickly without proper social distancing measures in place or a more fleshed-out plan for controlling the virus, the US could be right back at square one in a matter of months.

“It is clear to me that we are in a critical moment in this fight. We risk complacency in accepting the preventable deaths of 2,000 Americans each day. We risk complacency in accepting that our healthcare workers do not have what they need to do their jobs safely. And we risk complacency in recognising that without continued vigilance in slowing transmission, we will again create the conditions that led to us being the worst-affected country in the world,” Ms Rivers told lawmakers.

Of the 3.78m confirmed cases of Covid-19 worldwide, 1.26m have been in the US.

Nearly 75,000 Americans have died from the illness so far this year, with that number expected to climb to well past 100,000 over the next several weeks.

While many of the subcommittee members appeared to agree with Ms Rivers’ assessment of the need for states to reach certain benchmarks before reopening, GOP Congressman Andy Harris of Maryland questioned whether that is economically feasible for many communities that have been crippled by stay-at-home orders.

Many of the communities in his district “can’t last” until Maryland reaches those statewide benchmarks, said Mr Harris, who is an anaesthesiologist

Mr Harris also spoke at a rally on Sunday calling for Maryland to reopen immediately.

“I think customers won’t want to visit if they aren’t confident” they can do so safely, Ms Rivers said in response to a question from Mr Harris.

“That’s their choice,” Mr Harris replied, adding later that Americans must resign themselves to “some element of risk” if they’re to ever resume normal life.

“You are safer, far safer, if you are not born,” Mr Harris said, sardonically.