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In our opinion: Testing would bring economic security as joblessness numbers soar

Holley Bryan, a medical assistant with University of Utah Health, administers a blood draw test at a testing facility in Park City on Wednesday, May 6, 2020. The testing facility is part of the David Eccles School of Business and University of Utah Health’s new Utah Health & Economic Recovery Outreach program. The program will test 10,000 Utahns across four counties.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Many Americans are unemployed and suffering in a myriad ways, but they aren’t eager to venture out and attempt to resume normal economic activity.

Recent surveys and polls bolster what we have been saying recently. Despite how political operatives on the left or right may want to gain election year traction right now through contrived talking points, the nation isn’t struggling over a choice of whether to save lives or the economy. It is struggling against a deadly virus.

State governments may decide to “reopen” their economies, but that doesn’t mean those economies will come roaring back quickly. People are afraid. They are reluctant to venture into crowds, do much nonessential shopping or travel for leisure.

Only two things could end this. One is an effective vaccine, something experts say is many months away. The other is greater widespread testing — far beyond current levels — using kits that are inexpensive and provide rapid and reliable results.

Widespread testing would allow officials to track the spread of the virus and to gauge pockets of safety or concern. It would replace much of the mystery behind this pandemic with a reliable knowledge base. Officials would know how many people are asymptomatic carriers and how many have had the virus and recovered.

The United States has wisely given states great latitude in responding to their own unique circumstances. Utah, with a low death rate per capita, ought to be able to tailor its rules differently than New York, which has the nation’s highest. Greater testing would inform those decisions.

Entrepreneurs are working hard at this. The National Institutes of Health told senators this week that a quick and accurate test will be available by the end of the summer. Given the economic pain being felt by too many in the United States, that seems too distant.

The Labor Department on Friday reported a 14.7% national unemployment rate. That figure doesn’t include those who have stopped looking for work — a significant factor at a time when many are ordered to remain home. The true rate also may be much higher because some states have backlogs in processing unemployment claims.

Even if many of the lost jobs are temporary, and even if some jobs have been regained in recent days, joblessness is at a level not seen since the 1930s. No one should be surprised that some politicians are almost frantic in wanting to get things going again.

We share that desire, but it won’t be as easy as issuing a government decree. A Pew Research Center survey released Thursday found that 68% of Americans say they are worried governments will release restrictions too soon. Almost half, 48%, said the restrictions in their area are about right.

A separate poll conducted in Texas by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found that 51% of Texans say they don’t plan to fly again until at least August. Only 49% said they would be even somewhat comfortable eating at a restaurant right now.

Clearly, the virus is in control, not politicians, protesters or pundits.

Opening up society must come first, and only then can the economy truly open up.

That makes the current economic situation truly dire, and the need for significant testing and a vaccine imperative.