Memorial Day promises to feel different this year.
From Normandy to Da Nang, Fallujah to Iwo Jima, and Kings Mountain to Gettysburg, Americans laid down their lives as testaments to courage. Setting aside the great questions attendant to war and peace, we ritually reflect on sacrifices offered by all generations of our nation’s history on the last Monday of each May. A happier custom, however, has adhered to Memorial Day too — it signals the unofficial kickoff to summertime.
Summertime doesn’t have the same ring to it this year.
COVID-19 has wrought havoc worldwide. American statistics have been sobering. Despite administering 12 million tests and seeing 250,000 recoveries, imagining 1.5 million diagnoses and 90,000 deaths boggles the mind. North Carolina stands at nearly 22,000 cases against 303,000 tests administered, but over 725 lives have been lost. We are unused to seeing such tragic loss of life by a practically invisible enemy. As a practicing anesthesiologist and former United States Navy Reserve medical officer, I am not desensitized to death and its consequences, never mind to this scale.
And COVID-19’s consequences are not limited to lost lives.
North Carolina’s lockdown was originally a policy response to the threat of our hospital systems being overwhelmed. “Essential” and “non-essential” workers and industries alike had hours cut, productivity slashed and doors bolted. Normal rhythms of daily life, such as children attending school and playing sports, adults leaving for work and enjoying after-hours recreation, and all manner of commercial activity were sacrificed for the sake of lessening the impact of this virus on our health care capacity. Quick action from private and state actors combined with everyone doing their part to limit social interaction flattened the curve, but another somber problem awaits us in the form more than a million unemployed North Carolinians, thousands barely scraping by right here in Pitt County.
Progress has been tedious — and patience is in short supply.
Arguments for caution are well-received. We have emphasized for all elements of our population to wash their hands and avoid touching their faces. Our elderly and immunocompromised populations exercise great care when going out. North Carolina, however, cannot go on like this indefinitely. Rather than manage COVID-19’s effects on our state, it appears to instead be managing us. That must change.
Now more than ever, testing and case surveillance are the keys to overcoming this virus.
COVID-19 virology and serology testing identify, respectively, those who actively carry and those who have previously contracted the virus. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has granular real-time demographic and geographic testing data that, if released in HIPAA-compliant ways to our hospital systems and leading research institutions, could revolutionize our approach to case surveillance.
If all our efforts could be united, the policy conversation changes. Single-minded approaches toward limiting hospital strain or waiting for a mass-produced vaccine could be shelved. Virus hotspots could be monitored in real time with inputs from Murphy to Edenton. Raleigh officials could move forward with safe regional reopening plans, not treat the entire state as if we’re only as strong as our most virus-afflicted areas.
Throughout, we would guide families, businesses, and institutions on best practices as they evolve with our knowledge of COVID-19.
North Carolinians deserve real hope for a brighter summer this Memorial Day. If we nail our testing and surveillance data sharing, we can begin returning to work, resuming more of the rhythms of daily living, and restoring our confidence to control this virus — regionally, quickly, and safely. Let’s start now.
Perrin Jones, M.D., of Greenville represents District 9 in the N.C. House of Representatives.