‘Operation Warp Speed’ and the Contact Tracers

Like everything having to do with Covid-19, the US will likely be way late in having enough contact tracers in place, ready to pounce on every new case of infection to isolate those who spent some time close to anyone tested positive. Listening Thursday to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and his description of how gargantuan a task it will be to field an army of contact tracers following up on every new infection anyone has to wonder how it will ever be accomplished.

He said that on Wednesday, 4,681 new infections were turned up by the largest testing operation of any state. Ideally each one of those becomes a tracing case. Every day is turning up a similar number. How many people will it take? How many tracings can each person do a day? Who does the massive amount of bookkeeping to keep track of case No. 4,250 from April 30 and the 11 people she was close to in the previous four weeks? And it has to be done fast. It will do no good to find those contacts after they have had time to infect who knows how many other people.

My word, what a boring subject. We get it. Lots of tracers. Do we have to listen to this?

How about the intelligence community disputing President Trump’s suspicions about the source of the virus at that Wuhan laboratory? So tempting to look at what the president had to say Thursday and speculate what led to that rare formal statement from the voice of the intelligence community saying the virus was not engineered on purpose…Tempting – but a sideshow.

There are so many sideshows and it’s only the virus that counts now. The virus is waiting for as many as 31 states to begin serving up new victims as they relax the restrictions on gatherings, on commerce, on recreation.

It’s May 1 already. Doesn’t the virus understand we humans have had enough of this stay-at-home nonsense? Doesn’t the virus understand that thumbing your nose at such restrictions is a tribal imperative now that the back-to-work issue has been politicised?

The dumb virus doesn’t understand. It has to do what it has to do.

Listening to Bill Gates on CNN Thursday night – we know, he’s the one that secretly planted the virus to begin with and CNN is the antithesis of everything that’s patriotic and right with the world. Aside from that, he seems to know a lot about disease fighting and he observed, “You know, it’s kind of strange that there’s not, you know, clear federal guidance” on testing and contact tracing.

Then listening to the NIH’s Tony Fauci, also on the nightly CNN Town Hall on the virus, he said, “Believe me there’s nobody in the world, no matter what they say from what country, that’s going to guarantee you that they’re going to have a safe and effective vaccine at any given time frame.”

Yet, President Trump Thursday said a new “Operation Warp Speed” is going to have a possible vaccine supply, perhaps hundreds of millions of doses, ready by around next January. Few details have been announced. It sounds like a massively expensive effort, involving many of the government’s research facilities and the Defense Department, to coordinate all the dozens of vaccine efforts using a “master protocol” and animal testing. Bloomberg News was the first to report the existence of “Warp Speed.”

There are plenty of sceptics in the medical community that any such effort to speed up the laborious process of vaccine development can succeed on a pre-set schedule. Yet the process it will pioneer might be a new tool that blazes a trail toward some eventual solution. “No, I’m not overpromising,” Trump said in the Oval Office as he was hosting the Democratic governor of New Jersey. “I don’t know who said it, but whatever the maximum is, whatever you can humanly do, we’re going to have. And we hope we’re going to come up with a good vaccine.”

Still, Fauci continued in the evening, “They may be cautiously optimistic about it, but nobody’s going to guarantee that if they’re being honest with you. “

Speaking of CNN, aren’t we going to talk about that other interesting announcement, by anchor Anderson Cooper Thursday night, that he’s the proud father of new baby Wyatt? No, he did a good enough job of thanking the surrogate mother and pondering the cosmic significance all by himself. Remember, beware of the sideshows.

Back to Fauci’s observation, that no one who is being honest with you is going to guarantee a vaccine – the ultimate solution – by any particular time. Isn’t that the job of the president, to be honest with the American public? Can it be considered that maybe Trump is doing something right? Or is he betting the farm on a fantasy?

Which brings us back to New York Governor Cuomo, who went on to introduce former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, someone who knows how to spend money, hopefully with more effect than his gold-plated presidential campaign. Bloomberg volunteered to lead the future army of contact tracers and help fund them besides, certainly a worthy effort for any multi-multi billionaire.

Bloomberg said he has enrolled Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health – to which he’s donated $1.8 billion – to put together a training course for contact tracers. He hired a company to design three smartphone apps to help do the tracing. The technology and everything learned in recruiting and training the army, he said, will be shared with the entire world.

If there is to be anything approaching a new normal, a world in which people can have some confidence everyone they meet does not include a carrier without symptoms, it will be thanks to a vaccine or the contact tracers. In the Corona Virus Task Force guidelines, that is part of Phase Three, the promised land.

As Wednesday’s White House Watch related, before Phase Three, there’s Phase Two and Phase One. And, as the Task Force’s Deborah Birx said, there’s the phase that all those governors who are ignoring the guidelines are in, Phase Zero.

Fauci acknowledged that governors and mayors have to be given some “wiggle room” and that you would hope they won’t “wiggle too much.”

Several of them are doing a lot more than wiggling. In the view of many medical experts, they are doing a Waka Waka Shakira would be proud of.

Would “Operation Warp Speed” be better directed at organsing that army of contact tracers, who will depend on hundreds of thousands of tests every day to point the way, so they won’t so very slowly become familiar across America?

Again, as it stands now, the contact tracing cavalry may arrive in most states too slowly to save the thousands of lives that will end too soon in the weeks ahead, too slowly to allow the kind of economic rebound in time to save a lot of businesses, to prevent a lot of bankruptcies, to prevent a lot of hunger,  to save summer school for millions of students, to quench any second waves.

Sometimes imaginative short cuts like “Operation Warp Speed” do succeed. The military history books are full of long-shot gambits that worked. And sometimes the time and effort would have been better spent on building the foundation of victory in a more assured methodical way. Sometimes you can do both.

Re-openings, intensified research on a crash schedule, massively expanded testing and fielding an army of contact tracers, all key factors determining lives saved, lives lost in an uncertain future.



Colin Lambert

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