How to Beat COVID-19

Will this be enough? No one knows, because even now there are still a surprisingly large number of fairly basic questions we can’t answer about the coronavirus. We don’t know for sure how transmissible it is. We don’t know how effective social distancing is. We don’t know how many people get infected and never know it. We don’t know how infectious these asymptomatic carriers are. We don’t know if recovering from COVID-19 confers immunity in the future. We don’t know for sure how deadly it is in the absence of any underlying conditions. Even basic statistics on the spread of the virus are pretty questionable—and torturing the data won’t change that. Because of this we should all be fairly humble about how much we think we know and how confident we can be in our prescriptions. We should also strive on both sides not to dismiss hypotheses just because someone on the other side has proposed them.

However, masks and testing—for now, at least—seem to be almost unanimously agreed upon by epidemiologists as ways to rein in the coronavirus after lockdowns have reduced the spread of the virus to small numbers. And they’re both doable: mask wearing requires a PR campaign, and God knows that’s one thing that Donald Trump is good at. Testing is harder, but if Trump appointed a genuinely competent test czar with essentially unlimited power and funding, we could probably do it. It would certainly be a good national goal, even if we didn’t make it.

I’m sort of intrigued by the idea of increasing test throughput by testing groups of people. It’s a simple idea: you take swabs from, say, 10 people, mix them all together, and then run them through the PCR machine. If it comes back negative, the entire group is cleared. Only if you get a positive result do you go back and do individual tests to see who’s infected. On average, about three out of four tests would come back negative, which means you’d run 14 tests for 40 people rather than 40 tests. That triples your throughput even with no increase in testing capacity.

I haven’t heard anyone explain why this wouldn’t work, but there might be a catch. If I hear of one, I’ll let you know.

In the meantime, wash your hands, stay home as much as possible, and try to keep your distance from other people. And pray that Trump is somehow shaken into sanity and finally decides to take concrete action instead of fomenting red-state rebellion because he’s mad that the virus isn’t doing what he tells it.

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FACT:

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Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

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