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BROWNSVILLE, Texas – The founder of the UTHealth School of Public Health in Brownsville says the economy should not be ‘re-opened’ until there has been a lot more testing for the coronavirus. 

World-renowned epidemiologist Dr. Joseph McCormick was asked when it will be safe for shelter at home measures to be relaxed during a webinar hosted by Congressman Filemon Vela.

“The testing issue continues to be a problem. It is a major obstacle even to re-opening businesses to a large degree because we don’t have adequate testing,” McCormick said.

McCormick’s past experience includes testing patients with Lassa fever in Africa. He has written over 200 scientific publications related to epidemiology with co-authors from over 20 different countries.

McCormick said the test to see if someone is infected is called a PCR test. He said it usually takes 24 to 48 hours to achieve a result, though there are some rapid tests that are online. 

“But, here is the biggest problem with testing that everyone is experiencing: as one of my colleagues put it, the reagents that are required to make these tests are coming in a garden hose as opposed to a canal. This is one of the major things that is holding up the ability to expand our testing.”

Right now, McCormick said, health officials are using criteria on whether people have the symptoms for COVID-19 or not, or whether they have been in contact with a known case, to see whether they get tested.

“We would love to be able to expand that but I don’t see that happening any time soon because of the lack of reagents. We all would like to have more reagents.”

McCormick said he is not familiar with a new test that Stanford University has vetted. 

“What I am familiar with is the emergency use authorization that the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) uses, both for the rapid test for infection that I just described as well as the antibody test we are online. But, the problem is a lot of these tests have been given authority without the proper data and now our National Academy of Science is telling us that half of these tests are junk.”

As a result, McCormick said, scientists have to sort through what is good and what is not good.

“That is going to take some time as well. There is not any immediate good news on the horizon in terms of testing.”

Melissa, a listener to the webinar, phoned in to say she was concerned about an “impulsive rush” to re-open the economy, to ease shelter-at-home measures.

In response, Congressman Vela said he was considering a “soft opening” for his congressional officers, perhaps between May 15 to June 1. He said he is concerned that even this could be too soon

“I think we need to listen to our health professionals and our scientists on this issue,” Vela said.

McCormick said he is part of a task force at UT Health that is currently considering the question of when to “re-open” the economy.

“The answer is going to be complicated. I would emphasize it must be driven by science,” McCormick said.

“I don’t think anyone wants to go out and get infected with coronavirus unknowingly. I don’t think they want to be in a position to take it back to their family. This is the complication with opening up schools again, opening up businesses.”

McCormick discussed those who have already been infected with COVID-19 and who are now well.

“They could certainly go back into the workforce in some fashion. Until we can get more testing so that companies can test their employees for the coronavirus, it is going to be complicated to be able to do this.”

McCormick pointed out that there are some companies where the risk of human-to-human contact is much lower. He said these could be allowed to start working again soonest.

“It is clearly gone be very careful, in stages, with time to figure out how to minimize the risk in the face of the fact that we just don’t have the testing, either for acute infection or to be able to follow up to see how many people have already been infected and are now presumably immune, having antibodies.”

McCormick emphasized that the virus doesn’t recognize politics.

“That is why we have to use the best science we can. Obviously, balanced with the need. But, maybe we can figure out how to do this in small stages using good science, getting more information about other people’s experience.”

On that note, McCormick said U.S. scientists should look at countries like China, South Korea and Taiwan and others where the spread of CIOVID-19 may be under control. 

“We have to keep an eye out on what is happening to them and whether we are seeing a recurrence. None of us what to get back to seeing what we are seeing in New York and Chicago and elsewhere and that is what could happen if we open things up too soon.”

Editor’s Note: The podcast posted below was hosted by Congressman Filemon Vela of Brownsville and features the analysis of Dr. Joseph McCormick, along with Angela Burton of the Small Business Administration, and Julian Alvarez of the Texas Workforce Commission. 

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