Five months into the pandemic, local businesses and families continue to find themselves dealing with a great deal of uncertainty.
State and federal governments should no longer be in “reaction” mode. It is time to prepare and release a detailed, calendar-based plan that covers the remainder of 2020 and early 2021 until vaccines are available.
Major hurdles such as social distancing, mask compliance and low spread rates have been achieved. It is time to trust the public to maintain this momentum and to give New Mexico an opportunity to bounce back.
Our testing centers are to be commended for the large volume of PCR-based testing they have performed for active virus cases. However, turnaround times of two to seven days are not rapid enough for effective contact tracing or quarantine. There’s a fix for this. Paper strip tests have been developed that can be conducted daily before leaving your home or hotel room. New Mexico could be a leader in the national scene by moving quickly on this. Use of a fraction of the COVID emergency budget for these tests would save money in the long run due to the ability to quickly identify and isolate positive cases.
Recent scientific studies indicate that individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 are likely to have durable immunity. Since this may include undiagnosed New Mexicans that had mild symptoms, it is time to ramp up antibody testing. This will allow estimation of the percent of the populace that is likely to be protected and provide key data for updating mathematical models guiding public policy.
Vaccination is the critical step on the road to recovery. When asked by the press, Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase has dismissed the challenges associated with administering vaccinations to 2 million New Mexicans. Our citizens deserve to know more details about the vaccination timeline, based upon advisories coming from the National Institutes of Health on safety and anticipated production. There are important decisions to be made, as well as legal hurdles to ensure that the majority of citizens are compliant for the health of us all. Investments and early preparations should be outlined, including potentially outfitting fleets of mobile vans with cold storage and converting existing testing sites into pop-up vaccination clinics.
There will be pressure from a vocal minority that vaccination be voluntary, despite the track record that vaccination has eradicated smallpox and controlled whooping cough, polio and many other serious diseases. On the other side of the equation is recognition that closure of our schools, loss of jobs and failures of businesses have not been voluntary.
Those who “choose” not to be vaccinated will effectively be choosing not to contribute to the recovering health of the economy. Consequences should be real but not punitive, such as extending stay-at-home, masking and social distancing orders for these individuals. This choice might translate to a decision for their children to be home-schooled rather than be admitted to public schools.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires cash-strapped employers to pay employees for up to two weeks of quarantine for COVID-19 illness or exposure. Thus, it is both fair and financially justified to empower businesses to choose if evidence of acquired COVID-19-immunity, by antibody test or vaccination, will be required for employees. This leads to new questions: Will employees who refuse vaccination or antibody testing be eligible for unemployment? What will be the recommendations to hospitals and clinics for patients seeking medical procedures?
These decisions should be science-based. What do the models predict is the threshold – i.e., percent of our populace – that will need to be protected by prior infection-based immunity or vaccination before we can safely dispense with masking and social distancing?
It is time for transparency. We respectfully ask the governor and her team to publish dates for actionable steps to safely and speedily minimize our economic and personal losses. Then, New Mexicans can have a chance to feel personally engaged in the plan to protect the vibrancy of our beautiful state.
Bridget Wilson maintained an NIH-funded laboratory for over 25 years. As director of the N.M. Spatiotemporal Modeling Center, she led interdisciplinary teams to address important problems in cell biology and immunology through mathematical modeling. She is also a local restaurateur and inventor, with a recent patent approval to develop treatment for childhood leukemia.