More virus data before more restrictions, Berger advises

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Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger wants North Carolina’s hospital and pharmaceutical industries to lead a program of randomly testing about 1,000 state residents to determine the extent of the novel coronavirus before taking tougher measures to block personal interaction. 

In an interview Wednesday, Berger said, “there is a perfect blind spot in terms of data. We don’t know enough about the prevalence of this virus on the population at large. We need to do more to get accurate information as to what is the prevalence. That can provide justification for all the stuff we are doing and more.”

Often called the state’s most powerful political leader, the Senate leader said Republican lawmakers have discussed the proposal with Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration. The program would probably entail an investment of less than $50,000 and be completed within two weeks, says Berger. 

A random sample would establish the likely number with the virus and the “true medical facility needs and virus fatality numbers,” according to a press statement issued by N.C. Senate Republicans, who are led by Berger.

“There is a realization that decisions are being made based on one-sided data,” Berger says. “The only people to this point being tested are those with symptoms and mostly those with severe symptoms. That’s all of the information we have got. We really don’t know if we are facing a massive overrun of our health care system.”

Underlining Berger’s comments are his concern that well-intentioned restrictions on work and mobility are having a devastating impact on the N.C. economy. Berger says it’s clear that Gov. Cooper understands those concerns.

“I’ve encouraged him to make the best discussions he can make based on the data,” Berger says. “The governor sees that the damage to the economy in doing some things that some folks would like to see done is monumental.”

Health care experts have pressed political leaders globally to take unprecedented steps to limit personal interaction as the best way to slow the coronavirus spread, which has killed more than 21,000 people globally including about 1,031 in the U.S.

But Berger says North Carolina can be a national leader in understanding how the virus spreads and how much danger it presents, citing the state’s strong pharmaceutical and health care sectors. Testing capacity has also scaled up in the last week, making it possible to perform many tests in a short period, he says. No legislative approval is needed for a grassroots testing program, he adds.

Arresting the N.C. economy’s sharp descent needs to be considered by state leaders, Berger says. He cited a discussion this week with N.C. Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland “who was telling me about how they needed to bring more people into the Employment Security Commission just to handle the avalanche of claims they are receiving.” About 166,000 unemployment claims were filed in the last week, state officials said Wednesday, noting that it was common to add 100,000 claims a month during the 2007-09 recession.

“All you need to do is get in your car and drive around town and look at the parking lots of retail establishments and restaurants and the only place that people are at is grocery stores. … You don’t have to be an economist to understand that is a situation that can’t be sustained for long.”

Concerns of Cone Health CEO Terry Akin that the state needs to prepare for COVID-19 much like it prepares for a hurricane doesn’t sway Berger. “We’re not saying don’t prepare. We’re just saying we may find it’s necessary or clearly we may find it’s not. How many times have we seen these hurricanes truck along at Category 4 or 5 as they head for the beach and it turns out it was a Category 1 or a tropical storm. We have to prepare for what is possible but we don’t ignore the data that is available.”

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