Coronavirus Response from CDC Is an Omen for Single-Payer Healthcare Shortages for All

The spread of the coronavirus epidemic to the United States is giving all Americans a first-hand look at what life would be like under a single-payer healthcare system, such as the Medicare-for-All proposals advocated by several U.S. politicians. That’s because of the role of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in managing the federal government’s primary response to the spread of what is now officially classified as a pandemic.

When the extent of the developing coronavirus epidemic within China became widely known in January, leading that nation’s authoritarian leaders to impose a draconian quarantine affecting tens of millions of its people, the clock began ticking for the CDC’s centralized bureaucrats to develop an effective response for when the viral infection would begin showing up in American cities, which would only be a matter of time. Reporting by ProPublica‘s Caroline Chen, Marshall Allen, Lexi Churchill and Isaac Arnsdorf indicates much of the time they had was wasted:

As the highly infectious coronavirus jumped from China to country after country in January and February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lost valuable weeks that could have been used to track its possible spread in the United States because it insisted upon devising its own test.

The federal agency shunned the World Health Organization test guidelines used by other countries and set out to create a more complicated test of its own that could identify a range of similar viruses. But when it was sent to labs across the country in the first week of February, it didn’t work as expected. The CDC test correctly identified COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. But in all but a handful of state labs, it falsely flagged the presence of the other viruses in harmless samples.

As a result, until Wednesday the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration only allowed those state labs to use the test—a decision with potentially significant consequences. The lack of a reliable test prevented local officials from taking a crucial first step in coping with a possible outbreak—“surveillance testing” of hundreds of people in possible hotspots. Epidemiologists in other countries have used this sort of testing to track the spread of the disease before large numbers of people turn up at hospitals.

If the CDC had developed their test to complement the tests that had already been developed and deployed by the U.N.’s World Health Organization in other countries, then medical laboratories across the United States could have worked around its limitations. But because the CDC’s bureaucrats effectively established a government-run monopoly to mandate the use of their flawed in-house coronavirus test, the ability of U.S. medical professionals working at hospitals and private laboratories to develop and conduct independent tests to detect the infection has been hampered.

The good news is that the Trump administration broke the CDC’s monopoly by allowing competition from private-sector labs to meet the nation’s growing demand for diagnostic tests.

But it’s very telling that the CDC’s centralized bureaucracy’s initial response to the problem they created was to impose strict rationing not just of who could conduct and evaluate the tests, but also rationing of who could be tested. City Journal‘s Roger D. Klein describes the CDC’s self-inflicted crisis from its foray into single payer-style health care:

It’s troubling that community spread in Washington State and other parts of the U.S.—possibly affecting hundreds to thousands of individuals—wasn’t detected sooner. Overregulation of diagnostic testing has played a major role in this delay. For weeks, the CDC operated the nation’s sole diagnostic laboratory for coronavirus, while testing in the rest of the world proceeded apace. Test protocols using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) were publicly available shortly after Chinese researchers published (or described) the sequence of the virus in mid-January. The World Health Organization (WHO) used a freely available German procedure to create a test kit, shipping 250,000 tests to 159 laboratories worldwide. Since early February, the WHO has facilitated specimen transfer to referral laboratories.

In China, labs have tested thousands of patients each day. By February 23, the Chinese government had approved ten test kits, and production capacity reached 1.65 million tests per week. Meantime, South Korea has more than 500 testing sites and has screened over 100,000 people, reportedly testing 10,000 individuals per day and pioneering “drive-through” testing facilities. This enhanced testing capability is a key reason why the country has reported over 5,100 cases—the second-largest, outside China—including larger numbers of patients with mild illness, as reflected in a case fatality rate less than 1 percent. As of March 3, the U.K. had tested nearly 14,000 cases.

By contrast, the U.S. had performed a paltry 472 tests by March 2. Further, CDC testing criteria have precluded recognizing community spread because of requirements stipulating recent travel to China or exposure to an infected person. Adherence to these guidelines delayed testing in the first probable case of community transmission, in Northern California, by four days.

It could be worse. China, which saw the origination of the viral outbreak in the city of Wuhan, has a fully government-run healthcare system. Eighteen years ago, Regie Hamm encountered how its healthcare system operates when he and his wife had to rush their newly adopted daughter to a public hospital in that country:

As we stepped in more urine, took our number from the print-out machine, walked past the line of children whining and crying from the scalp IVs in their heads, then rushed to clean up blood and mucus (left by the last patient) on the plastic table they were now laying our baby on, then waited on the ONE overworked doctor (attending to no less than three hundred people) try to round up a basic anti-biotic to administer to my daughter (right there on site – no refills) it dawned on me what I was seeing and what I had been seeing this whole time. I wasn’t watching a “backward” culture or a third-world society. These people weren’t genetically inferior to first-worlders. They weren’t “less-evolved” than I was.

I was witnessing the kind of maximum, almost brutal efficiency a society must develop when the state is the master and the individual is merely a subject. Why would a Communist country not have an effective FDA? Because who are you going to complain to if you get tainted food? The government? They don’t answer to you. The press? They are owned by the government. And again, they don’t answer to you.

So what if you don’t like the conditions in the hospital? Where else are you going to go? This hospital is the last (and only) stop. You can’t opt for another place and then just pay out of your own pocket. The government has capped financial upward mobility. There is now “income equality.” And that means nobody has the means to buy their way into a different (or better) situation. And even if you could, one doesn’t exist. The state provides it all. You’re stuck.

The CDC and its response to coronavirus has provided Americans with a small taste of what life under a government-run, single-payer healthcare system would be like, with the bureaucrats who make decisions that have life-or-death impacts reigning supreme in regard to what care will be provided and who will be allowed to get treatment. Who wants more?

Craig Eyermann is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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