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School food service — another priority for when we get more tests

The severe shortage of tests is arguably the greatest weakness in the United States’ response to the new coronavirus.

The backstory, in brief, goes something like this, according to articles in Time and the Washington Post: In January when the world became fully aware of the virus, Germany’s system let private companies start developing new tests quickly, both for Germans and for the World Health Organization, and with little red tape. By the time the virus swept through, Germany had a good supply of tests and used them widely, as South Korea had done prior. That is probably one reason why those countries have a relatively low death rate from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus. They have relatively high numbers of confirmed cases, but that is likely because they have tested more people; they have fewer unknown cases out there.

In our country, meanwhile, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is required to take the lead in developing tests, and one of its early tests proved faulty. Private companies could not start making tests until they were approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and that didn’t come until the outbreak was well underway. Therefore, far too few tests had been produced by the time the virus hit our shores — and that is still the case now.

In our home counties of Franklin and Essex, tests are so scarce that they are mostly reserved for people who are sick enough to be hospitalized, or for health care workers and first responders who show symptoms of COVID-19. Far, far more people must be eligible, to keep the eventual death count down, but there simply are not enough tests to go around.

And if you can test, what can you do? People need to know who should not break quarantine for any reason, and who can go out on occasion to buy groceries or whatnot. Taking people’s temperature only tells who has symptoms, but we know by now people can carry the coronavirus without showing symptoms.

With this editorial we hope to amplify local health officials’ requests for more tests, but we also want to offer some thoughts about, once more tests arrive, who should be top priority for them, beyond hospital inpatients and health care workers.

Nursing home staff and residents should be among the top priorities, as we said in Wednesday’s editorial. But on Tuesday it also hit home to us that anyone handling food for public consumption — especially for mass consumption, such as the school cafeteria workers and volunteers who are making and delivering meals for hundreds of local families — also need to be prioritized for testing.

Saranac Lake Central School Superintendent Diane Fox assured us Tuesday that no one in the cafeteria had to tested positive, but she did confirm that two workers had been quarantined (and are now back at work) because people they knew had either tested positive or been exposed. The thing is, those workers probably weren’t tested, since so few people have been. So even if they show no symptoms, we don’t know if they, or anyone else, has spread the virus.

Hypothetically, if one of the workers and volunteers who handle those SLCS lunches is infected with coronavirus, it could spread to 200 local households in a single day, potentially contaminating every adult and child in those homes. Our community needs to be especially cautious about vectors such as this, wherein one person can quickly spread the virus to large numbers of others.

We are not at the point of saying schools should stop these home meals. The more they do them, the less often families need to go to grocery stores, and that limits overall exposure. Also, these programs show a love and service of neighbors that we praise to the heavens. But this food source needs to be safe.

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