More testing needed to reopen; Abbott steps deemed ‘fairly modest’

Joseph B. McCormick M.D., an epidemiologist, founder of the UTHealth School of Public Health in Brownsville and is one of the world’s top experts on terrifying diseases. Courtesy photo
It begins and ends with testing, and so far there’s still not nearly enough of it to advance significantly toward initial steps to reopen the state’s economy.

So says Joseph McCormick, epidemiologist and founder of the UTHealth School of Public Health in Brownsville, who has first-hand experience with some of the world’s deadliest diseases. He described as “fairly modest” and reasonable steps announced by Gov. Greg Abbott last week to begin loosening restrictions on parts of the economy, such as reopening state parks, and allowing retail businesses to conduct curbside trade and hospitals to start doing elective procedures again.

Safety precautions such as social distancing would necessarily remain in place, and the gradual reopening would be guided by doctors and testing data, according to Abbott. McCormick said hospitals in Cameron County and other places not overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients could do so safely.

“You could test all of your staff and you can test the patients who are coming in for these things, and that’s fine,” he said. “That’s a very rational thing to do, and it could be very low risk.”

Other types of businesses — tire and lube shops for instance — could operate with minimal risk of spreading infection as long as customers wear masks, use hand sanitizer and practice social distancing, and as long as employees are tested, McCormick said.

“There are a lot of companies like that, even small shops, where that could be done if it’s done responsibly and if we have testing,” he said. “Those can all be done without undue risk.”

“ If we have testing” is the key phrase. The White House continues to claim inaccurately that states have sufficient testing capacity to begin reopening their economics. Meanwhile, bipartisan calls by governors for the administration to set up a nationwide testing regime are growing in volume.

“Everybody is saying the same thing: get testing,” McCormick said. “If we have testing, yes, there are things we can do, because we know where the virus is. Right now, without testing, we cannot know. We cannot know if it’s in the tire shop or in the local grocery. We cannot know that because we don’t have the testing. That’s all we’re saying. We need that in order to protect everyone.”

This is not his first rodeo. McCormick, who is advising U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, as well as the City of Brownsville and Cameron County officials during the current crisis, is the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Level 4 “hot zone” disease research laboratory, and has spent much of his career chasing down deadly diseases on other continents.

“I have actually gone into the grass and villages in the middle of Sudan and the Congo looking for patients with Ebola so that we could quarantine them so that they didn’t spread the disease, because it was hard to get local people to understand,” he said. “After they did, they started to cooperate.”

The local practice of burying families involved lots of handling the body of the deceased, especially in Sudan. Part of McCormick’s job was to find a way for the villagers to honor their dead without becoming infected themselves.

“I had to manage all of that and figure out how to do it,” he said. “So we cobbled together masks and gowns and gloves and allowed certain members of the families to help with burying bodies, so that they could practice their belief but also protect themselves from the disease.”

McCormick led the first investigation on HIV in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1983. It was during that time that he worked with Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was director of the National Institute of Infectious Disease at the time and is now the top infectious disease expert in the United States and the public face of the administration’s coronavirus response.

“I have the utmost respect for his integrity, his scientific ability,” McCormick said.

He also praised Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez and county Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. for “doing exactly the right thing” in implementing social-distancing, travel restrictions and other measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. And while McCormick isn’t opposed to Abbott’s call for a gradual reopening — provided adequate testing is in place — he doesn’t mince words when it comes to Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who made headlines a month ago by suggesting senior citizens should be willing to give up their lives for the economy.

In fact, restrictions must remain in place for the time being precisely in order to protect the most vulnerable members of the population, McCormick said.

“I’m 78 years old,” he said. “I don’t want to get COVID virus. Even though I’m healthy and don’t have any underlying conditions that I’m aware of, nevertheless, at my age I know I don’t have an immune system that I had when I was 45. It doesn’t make sense to put all these people in jeopardy, just because we have a lieutenant governor who thinks that everybody at our age should be willing to sacrifice their life for the economy of the U.S. Come on.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com