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Opening guidelines useless without testing

Gov. Kate Brown’s proposed guidelines for gradually reopening Oregon businesses as the threat of COVID-19 infections eases are worth discussing. But the biggest obstacle to easing restrictions is the federal government’s failure to make testing and the supplies needed to do it widely available.

State officials have been unable to secure enough swabs to collect samples from patients, and rapid testing machines sent to Oregon are useless because there are not enough test kits to operate them. Oregon placed an order for 5,000 test kits, but only four were delivered. Federal officials said test kits were in short supply, so they were not accepting large orders, and told state officials they should contact the machines’ manufacturer — which had previously told them to order from the federal government.

Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen said the federal government’s attitude toward Oregon almost seems punitive. He said state officials have been told that Oregon is a very low priority for receiving testing supplies because we have few cases and few deaths from COVID-19.

In other words, an administration that has urged states to reopen their economies sooner rather than later is punishing states like Oregon, which has done a good job slowing the spread of the virus, by denying the supplies they need to do the testing necessary to reopen responsibly. That makes no sense.

Supply-chain problems are facing every state in the country — and many countries across the world — as they try to ramp up testing to get a better handle on were the virus is and, equally important, where it is not. States are forced to compete with each other for scarce supplies.

Brown’s draft guidelines for reopening businesses focus on rules, such as distancing, where restaurant patrons would be allowed to sit, and limits on the number of people allowed to congregate in a given area. These are important considerations, but most important is the ability to test thousands of people quickly and to trace the contacts of those who test positive to map the movement of the virus in the population, which should guide any move to reopen businesses.

Without the ability to conduct widespread testing, guidelines for reopening are little more than wishful thinking.