A month ago, on March 13, the president declared a national emergency. At that time, he promised a federal response to COVID-19 to protect the American citizenry as much as possible, which included a mobilization of governmental and private resources. However, instead of a sweeping federal-led campaign of screening, testing and co-ordination of medical resources, the nation has only seen a smattering of small pilot projects, aborted attempts and, in some cases, no action at all.
The remarks made by the president in the Rose Garden revealed the administration’s strategy, a preference for public-private partnerships, or even a delegation of the federal government’s duties to large corporations. Promises were made by the president, defining what numerous companies were going to provide. In many cases, more than the companies could or would accomplish.
This is not the right time for our governmental leaders to make promises to the public that cannot or will not be met. Life and death is on the line.
A couple of examples of the failure of the Rose Garden commitments:
The president said that Target would partner with the federal government to provide COVID-19 testing sites in its parking lots across the country. Not one has opened. The company has said that it actually has no formal partnership with the federal government. It is waiting for the federal government to take the lead.
The president said that Google was working to develop a website for the public to use to determine whether a COVID-19 test would be warranted and to direct individuals to a nearby testing site. He said that 1,700 Google engineers were working on it and the vice president declared that the site would be up and running in two days. Dr. Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator at the White House, said the website would screen patients and tell them where to access drive-through testing and provide testing results to the patient. No such screening website has been developed by Google. There were never any Google engineers working on a national project.
A pilot program actually was developed by Verily, a sister company of Google. That program was created at the instigation of the government of California to support that state’s community-based COVID-19 testing from screening to testing to delivery of test results. The program is currently available only to residents of five counties in California. Verily ramped up the California program using 1,000 volunteers from the company. The company is in discussions with other state health care organizations that want this kind of testing project in other states but no federal project has been discussed. Meanwhile, Apple has released a screening tool in collaboration with the CDC, FEMA and the White House. You can access it at www.apple.com/covid19
The site has information about the virus and its symptoms, information about personal distancing and isolation, ideas about how to care for yourself while isolating and a screening tool to assess whether you need to be tested. It does not provide information about getting a test but refers users to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment for information.
The president also called an executive of the LHC Group to the Rose Garden microphone. LHC primarily provides in-home health care. The executive pledged that his company would be assisting Americans who cannot get to a test site and those in rural areas far from test sites. National Public Radio contacted 20 LHC sites in 12 states and not one is doing in-home testing. Employees at the contacted sites say they lack both testing kits and the training to administer tests.
Public-private partnership is a very good idea in this crisis. All 50 states should also be coordinating responses as the virus timeline and impact is different from state to state. Every resource in our country that can help fight this pandemic needs to be harnessed in the effort. Unfortunately, so far, wishful thinking and bragging has appeared to take the place of real fact-finding, planning, collaboration and communication. A constructive partnership is two-way. This is not a matter of business promotion in the Rose Garden. There needs to be advanced negotiation, consultation and collaboration and shared resources to make it work.
As the president pushes to reopen workplaces across the nation, our country needs expanded laboratory capacity for testing, collection kits with swabs and tubes and testing sites which are accessible and safe for the public and testing staff. We need national standards to prioritize who gets tested and government funding to build testing facilities. Our national supply chain is not working properly to meet the needs associated with this pandemic. We all know that our heroes, the essential workers, do not have the proper personal protective equipment. There is more testing today than there was a month ago, but this country must not reopen on May Day unless things change drastically at the national level.
Marti Crow is a Leavenworth Times columnist.