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John Oliver explains what we need to do to reopen the US

Updated May 4th, 2020 7:00PM EDT
Coronavirus Testing
Image: HBO

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  • Comedian John Oliver explained in a segment on his HBO show Last Week Tonight why testing for the novel coronavirus is important and how it should work.
  • Oliver addressed both the COVID-19 diagnostic tests and the immunity tests, detailing all the testing problems that hindered America’s response to the pandemic.
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After weeks of social distancing measures, it’s unsurprising to hear that people want to get back to normal. Whether they’re politicians, business people, or employees who’ve lost their jobs, they’re not entirely wrong to say the economy needs to reopen. But easing measures without concrete plans to reduce the risk of future outbreaks and to mitigate future local epidemics will only get us back where we started.

Communities that aren’t able to handle their COVID-19 caseload and diagnose as many coronavirus patients as possible will be doomed to repeat the lockdown experience. And this John Oliver report explains that the US is still failing at one of the two key activities needed to keep any highly contagious disease in check: Testing.

Rapid testing and contact tracing are the pillars of fighting any infectious disease. With the right tests and the proper contact tracing policies in place, countries are able to find patients early, and then treat and isolate them as quickly as possible. They are also able to retrace their steps and see who they may have infected.

South Korea won the battle against the coronavirus by testing aggressively and tracing contacts. Korea registered more than 11,000 cases and 252 deaths since January 26th, when the first cases were recorded in the country. At one point, South Korea seemed to be the next COVID-19 epicenter alongside Italy. South Korea flattened the curve, and Italy didn’t.

Germany also conducted a massive testing campaign, with more than 166,000 infections being confirmed at the time of this writing. Early testing allowed Germany to significantly reduce the number of casualties, with the country having just 7,003 COVID-19 fatalities to date.

New Zealand declared last week that it doesn’t have community transmission of COVID-19. In other words, it knows the origin of each case. And that can only happen through consistent testing and contact tracing.

The US has largely failed on both counts, with Oliver’s main segment on Last Week Tonight focusing on the testing problems. The report explains what went wrong in the early days of the US coronavirus response and why testing was delayed. He also describes the logistical problems that affect COVID-19 testing. The bureaucracy issues may have disappeared, but that doesn’t mean that testing is available to everyone. The manufacturing and logistics for mass testing aren’t where they need to be.

Moreover, the report notes that the other crucial test that can help doctors understand the true scope of the disease, the immunity tests, have a huge problem. Most of them are unreliable and often return false-positive results. Antibody tests that don’t work may tell you that you’ve had the disease when you really didn’t, and that could give you a false sense of security, assuming COVID-19 immunity is long-lasting, which nobody can guarantee right now.

The good news is that we can work to make sure this never happens again. Future COVID-19 outbreaks could be managed better, and outbreaks like the ones in Italy, Spain, and New York should never occur again. Add to all that serious coronavirus testing analysis a pinch of Oliver humor, complete with the mandatory praise of Adam Driver, and you end up with a COVID-19 segment you need to watch to understand what’s coming next:

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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