Widespread testing remains key factor in nation’s ability to reopen, experts say

In a virtual discussion, economist Emily Oster and public health expert Dr. Ashish Jha agreed that embracing imperfect but effective methods, including testing and contact tracing, can keep Americans safe as the country reopens.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — After months spent in various stages of lockdown to slow the spread of novel coronavirus, is the United States ready to reopen soon? The answer depends on the nation’s COVID-19 testing capabilities, regional spread of the virus and political leadership, two Brown University experts say.

Speaking at a virtual event on Tuesday, Aug. 4, Professor of Economics Emily Oster and incoming dean of the Brown School of Public Health Dr. Ashish K. Jha said the ability to return to offices, schools and restaurants rests largely on the availability and efficiency of COVID-19 tests, the federal government’s cooperation with public health experts’ advice, and the collective ability of Americans to embrace imperfect but effective prevention and treatment methods, rather than continuing to search for a single ideal solution.

“We keep looking for a silver bullet,” said Jha, a physician and global health scholar who officially begins his tenure at Brown next month. “But when you have four tools and put them all together, the combination is the silver bullet.”

Some of those flawed yet valuable tools, Jha and Oster said, include regular, widespread and rapid testing; thorough contact tracing; proper mask wearing; and continuous work toward developing a COVID-19 vaccine.

“If most people wear masks, that’s better than nobody wearing them,” said Oster, creator of the facts-based COVID-Explained website. “If there’s a 15% or 20% false negative rate in testing, that’s okay if you’re testing millions of people every day. I think we haven’t made that mental shift, but we’re going to have to if we want to have a better surveillance testing infrastructure.”

Oster argued that reopening in the U.S. does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition: Some communities may be able to return to work and school sooner if the number of cases is low and their schools have the resources necessary to implement frequent testing. Others may need to stay closed for many more months to reduce the number of positive cases. 

But both Oster and Jha agreed that reopening on a grand scale can’t happen until the U.S. has the resources to test millions of Americans every day and return those test results in 48 hours or less, a move that needs support from federal leadership to happen.

“We’re not going to be able to figure out how to get more testing out of the infrastructure we have,” Jha said. “We need totally new modalities. The good news is, they exist. I believe we can get to a point where we can have ubiquitous testing. Whether [it] shows up in three months or 12 months is largely going to be driven by policy.”

The event, titled "COVID Today: Is America Really Ready to Re-Open?" was hosted by Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.