Despite good motivations, county’s antibody test plan was an expensive screw up

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By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times @mikemcgannpa

There are times you hate to be right, and this is one of them.

Way back in May, I questioned the decision by Chester County Health to use untested and likely inaccurate antibody testing (https://chescotimes.com/?p=31851) — and to use it only on a limited population, those with symptoms. I argued that broad diagnostic testing and contact tracing was the best method.

Well, a detailed report in The Philadelphia Inquirer (https://www.inquirer.com/health/coronavirus/chester-county-coronavirus-antibody-tests-false-positives-20200911.html) showed that it was kind of a major screw up, to the tune of $13 million.

Antibody tests, then and now, had massive issues with being inaccurate — and if The Inquirer report is accurate (they’re just about the only local news operation with the resources to do this kind of story these days) — there was reason to question using such testing at the time (and yes, I did on May 4 — three days before the testing program started).

At the time, I said it was a mistake, but one driven by trying to do something, anything to help get a handle on COVID-19. The story in The Inky hints at campaign contributions and such as being a possible motivation — that, I don’t know, and have my doubts about.

Obviously, had there been enough testing from the federal government, county officials would not have felt pressure to do anything they could. And yeah, what we learned this week from Bob Woodward’s book — Fury — make that an even more frustrating situation.

Still, there are likely to be consequences for this decision, with millions of dollars worth of these tests sitting in storage, likely useless. Millions in federal COVID relief went to these tests — in retrospect, money that could have been spent better — imagine having the money to use the new quick, point of service test on every person in the county. Maybe more frustrating seeing that our numbers in the county are getting worse again.

In short — at a time when we don’t trust the federal government, and now we have reason to question our own county government.

Health Department Director Jeanne Casner, at minimum, who didn’t object — and may have been a supporter of the initial plan — sees her credibility take a major hit. With her already under fire for recommending no school in the county be open for in-person instruction — the last thing the people of the county need is a good reason to question her judgment.

When I asked her about it in April, she wasn’t supporting broad diagnostic tests for the community at large to track the spread of the virus.

“This virus doesn’t support it,” she said. She explained that people may have it, but not have symptoms, test negative, and then later end up infected, so widespread testing by swab — especially as the number of such tests remain limited — is not warranted.

In the rearview mirror, this argument doesn’t seem as compelling — in fact, it is becoming evident that only broad tests, especially of those without symptoms, will help us get a handle on this virus. If I knew that in April — and God knows, that beyond having covered health issues in a more than a three-decade career and being a capable enough user of the Internet to read medical journals, I’m not anything like an expert — why didn’t others? South Korea knew — and other countries knew and did so.

As I noted at the time, I didn’t feel there were bad motivations here, but questionable judgment.

But as a consequence, it seems like there will be less trust — and more scrutiny — of health decisions in the county.

***

While Chester County officials were making a good-faith effort — and were in error — we learned this week the federal government intentionally failed to respond to COVID-19 for political reasons.

And it seems like they did it out stupid public policy and political reasons — a strong, well-managed response to the virus would have been Republicans’ best argument for reelection. Instead, they downplayed the virus, argued to reopen prematurely and wrecked the economy, none of which is helping politically.

The tapes don’t lie: Donald Trump lied to the American people about how dangerous COVID-19  was back in February.

The revelations in Bob Woodward’s Book, Fury — along with nine or 10 hours of audio recordings to document Trump’s comments — tell the story of a leader unwilling to tell the truth to a public that needed to hear it.

Invariably, though, it’s not Trump lying that is the problem here — it is the elected Republican officials who back him no matter what: 20,000 lies (as documented by The Washington Post), multiple ethical breaches, obstruction of justice and a wide range of corruption that would have made even Nixon blush.

Without that GOP support, none of this would be happening.

We see it most clearly here in Pennsylvania, where Republican trolls continue to try pointless attacks on Gov. Tom Wolf’s efforts to contain COVID-19. Instead of working to address a very real health crisis, legislative Republicans — including a number who represent Chester County — have been more interested in playing pointless political games.

Some of these knuckleheads — cough, Russ Diamond, cough, Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry, cough — keep trying to push Donald Trump’s fake claims that the COVID crisis is almost over and everything in the state should open back up. That is in variance with Dr. Anthony Fauci — an actual expert, not someone who paid someone else to take their SATs — who said this week we need to hunker down and be prepared for a rough couple of months this fall.

I wouldn’t trust GOP legislators to get a lunch order right, so I’m more inclined to think Fauci knows what he’s talking about.

This week, we got a snapshot of two parties: one trying to do the right thing, but screwing up and another lierally trying to do the wrong thing and screwing up worse.

Results matter, of course. But I’d rather see government by folks trying for the right reasons, even if they make mistakes at time. Motivations matter, too.

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