Hospitals in most states have plenty of capacity, aside from those in hardest-hit areas like New York and Louisiana, according to an analysis from Raymond James. But it’s unclear whether states can regularly test front-line health workers for the virus. And there are major questions about the accuracy and availability of antibody tests to gauge past exposure that are an essential part of the Trump administration’s plan for states to emerge.
Ali Mokdad, a health metrics expert at the University of Washington whose modeling has informed the White House and governors, said the focus on hospital capacity is misguided, particularly if a state allows retail businesses such as hair salons and tattoo parlors to reopen.
“If we allow this virus to circulate, then you have to face the same wave again and shut down,” he said. “How can you have social distancing with someone cutting my hair? If you want to open something, fine, but do it strategically.”
States like Illinois, New Jersey and Alabama aren’t using excess hospital capacity as a green light to start returning to normal. Governors in those places want to keep restrictions in place long enough to amass enough testing to track the virus if a second wave occurs in the fall.
“What you want to do is make sure that the number of people who get sick is kept down,” said Illinois Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker. “And so that’s really the purpose of a stay-at-home order.”
Tom Frieden, the former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that if he were a governor, he would want to be sure his state had enough testing available to know if cases started to spike again. No state can now say it does.
“If I don’t have all the testing that I’d like to have, which I’m sure I don’t, I [would want to] have enough testing to quickly investigate any clusters that could explode,” he said. “And I’d really like to have a public health workforce that is able to track cases.”
The debate over when it’s safe to reopen a state flared up this week when President Donald Trump criticized Georgia GOP Gov. Brian Kemp for moving too fast with a plan that had businesses such as bowling alleys, gyms, hair salons and tattoo parlors opening Friday if owners adhere to stringent social distancing and hygiene requirements. Movie theaters and restaurants are supposed to follow next week.
Kemp, before Trump’s rebuke, said his decision was, in part, based on his feeling that hospitals could handle a potential surge in cases that might occur.
“We’ve just got to be comfortable we can handle that demand,” he said.
Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) told POLITICO that hospital capacity had to be one of the primary signals for opening her state’s economy, where 20 percent of people are now out of work.