NEW YORK (AP) — A top world health official Monday warned that countries are essentially driving blind in reopening their economies without setting up strong contact tracing to beat back flare-ups of the coronavirus.
The warning came as France and Belgium emerged from lockdowns, the Netherlands sent children back to school, and many U.S. states pressed ahead by lifting business restrictions. Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced the company’s 10,000-worker electric car factory near San Francisco was operating Monday in defiance of coronavirus health orders that closed nonessential businesses.
Authorities have cautioned that the scourge could come back with a vengeance without widespread testing and tracing of infected people’s contacts with others.
Fears of infection spikes in countries that have loosened up came true in recent days in Germany, where new clusters were linked to three slaughterhouses; in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the crisis started; and in South Korea, where 85 new cases were linked to nightclubs that reopened after anti-virus measures were eased.
The World Health Organization’s emergencies chief, Dr. Michael Ryan, said that robust contact tracing measures adopted by Germany and South Korea provide hope that those countries can detect and stop virus clusters before they get out of control.
But he said other nations exiting lockdowns have not effectively employed contact tracing investigators who contact people who test positive, track down their contacts and get them into quarantine before they can spread the virus. The coronavirus can spread before people feel sick, making it important to act quickly. Ryan declined to name specific countries.
“Shutting your eyes and trying to drive through this blind is about as silly an equation as I’ve seen,” Ryan said. “And I’m really concerned that certain countries are setting themselves up for some seriously blind driving over the next few months.”
At the White House, President Donald Trump declared: “We have met the moment, and we have prevailed.” He said later that he was referring to virus testing and insisted all Americans who want tests can get them even though experts say that capacity does not exist.
Only on Monday did his administration say it believed it had enough tests for a nationwide testing campaign to address significant death rates in nursing homes and other senior care facilities.
Worldwide, the virus has infected a confirmed 4.1 million people and killed more than 285,000, including over 150,000 in Europe and 80,000 in the U.S., according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Experts believe those numbers understate the outbreak’s true toll.