Editor’s Note: Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner is executive director and co-founder of MomsRising.org, a nonprofit national organization that supports policies to improve family economic security. She is the author of “Keep Marching: How Every Woman Can Take Action and Change Our World.” The views expressed here are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
I live in Kirkland, Washington, which is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in our nation. As of Friday, 11 people have died in or near Kirkland and we still don’t know the full breadth of the threat or the response needed due to the botched testing rollout and lack of resources.
Many people I care about are sick but none know if it’s coronavirus or something more typical. I’m sad, scared and worried. Worried about my kids, worried about my family, my own health, and my community. And I’m mad – deep in my cells angry. Just days ago at a rally, President Donald Trump said: “This is their [Democrats] new hoax,” unhelpfully politicizing a public health crisis that is endangering Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, and people of all parties alike.
This is no hoax. We need help.
People in Kirkland have been trying to prepare as much as possible on their own, while also trying not to over purchase at stores so neighbors have supplies too. Listening to advice from public health experts, many have been stocking up on two weeks of food and supplies. And now there isn’t an antibacterial wipe or bottle of Purell to be found in local stores (experts say washing your hands with soap and water for the full “Happy Birthday” song twice – or 20 seconds – is effective). In many stores, stocks are low for non-perishable goods too, even toilet paper, and last I looked dried black beans were often also back ordered in top online stories.
But we can’t solve this on our own with cabinets full of non-perishable goods. Medical resources, including testing kits, and smart public health policies, including access to paid sick days, are urgently overdo.
As the death toll climbs here, few people in Kirkland know whether they should go to work or not if they have even a runny nose or sore throat. While the testing criteria from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now say anyone in the United States can get a test if their doctor orders one, here in Kirkland, and in the King County area including Seattle, testing for the coronavirus isn’t currently available unless you’ve traveled outside the United States to a select group of specific countries or been in direct contact with someone who has tested positive.
To confirm this, because news reports and statements from politicians have varied, I called the King County Department of Public Health coronavirus line Thursday evening, sat on hold for 35 minutes and spoke with someone who told me they still don’t have tests available outside that narrow criteria and don’t know when they will have them.
All of this is in contrast to what we’re hearing from the federal government: on Monday, the FDA stepped forward to say it would orchestrate the production of one million coronavirus tests by this Friday, working with public and private ventures; the possibility of this feat happening was immediately questioned by experts. And, while on Tuesday Vice President Mike Pence said, “Any American can be tested” for coronavirus, local doctors here in Kirkland say tests are not yet available.
Of course, it’s hard to take any of the promises that Trump or Pence make relating to the coronavirus and public health seriously at this point when no significant increase in tests are to be found here at the center of the epidemic, when Trump has called the coronavirus outbreak a “hoax,” when Trump has rolled back public health programs, and when he has also demonstrated a deep misunderstanding of the coronavirus vaccine process and timeline despite being corrected by public health experts numerous times.
Facing this extreme inaction by the federal government, Washington state is now working to implement commercial tests, but as of Wednesday there wasn’t a timeline on when those tests would be available or how many.
Even with the testing criteria, the Trump administration created a botched system that for too long caused a backlog because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only had the capacity to test about 400 specimens a day in our entire country. Contrast that to South Korea where people can get a drive-up test.
For our nation as a whole, and for Kirkland in particular, the current narrow testing criteria and resources are wholly insufficient: research is showing that the coronavirus has likely been spreading undetected in our community for up to six weeks, meaning many people here likely have the illness – including in its mild form – and just haven’t been able to be tested yet, so have been inadvertently spreading it farther as they go about their daily lives. To be clear, people here are rightly concerned and needing to be tested even if they haven’t been in the Life Care Center in Kirkland, where the majority of fatalities have occurred, because “community transmission,” which is when cases arise in the community without a specific source, is beyond the doors of that particular facility here. In fact scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle estimate the number of people who are getting the virus here is quickly doubling every six days. But despite this community transmission, there is not yet any community testing.
We have a true crisis in the United States. Everyone gets sick in normal times, so without testing no one can say for sure what they have: coronavirus that should result in their being quarantined to protect our neighbors and the rest of our nation, or a normal winter cold or illness.
In this pressure cooker of stress, there is also pressure to go to work. While in Washington State most workers can accrue paid sick days, tens of millions of people, including the majority of low wage workers across the nation cannot. To follow doctor’s orders and stay home when sick, or to be quarantined when the coronavirus strikes, or to be there when a child’s school is closed due to the outbreak, everyone needs access to paid sick days. And when facing a choice between paying rent and taking an unpaid day off, most people who are struggling to make ends meet have little choice but to work sick.
The National Partnership for Women & Families recently highlighted the dire situation: more than a quarter of private sector workers, and 70% of low wage workers, don’t have access to a single paid sick day in our nation, with Latinx and black workers put at the most risk. Hidden in these statistics is the fact that the majority of food service and childcare workers can’t even earn paid sick days. And that adds up to more than 32 million working people in the United States who don’t have a single paid sick day available to put to use, even to follow public health experts’ orders in a coronavirus outbreak.
We’ve long had a slow, silent moving national emergency when it comes to any virus. It’s irresponsible to deny access to paid sick days this year or any year. Congress must pass the Healthy Families Act, which guarantees seven paid sick days to workers at businesses with 15 or more employees and seven job-protected unpaid sick days for workers in smaller businesses. It’s also fiscally irresponsible not to pass this policy. Studies show that a lack of paid sick days causes “presenteeism,” which means there is lost productivity and increased spread of illness in the workplace because people have to work sick, costing our national economy an estimated $160 billion annually, or about $234 billion when adjusted for inflation. President Trump must sign it into law immediately so we can protect our families, economy and country.
Want proof that passing paid sick days helps? According to a 2017 report, during a flu wave, there was up to a 40% drop in flu rates in cities and states that have passed paid sick days. Over 40 US locations – cities, counties and states – have already passed paid sick days, so the momentum exists to pass a federal paid sick day policy in Congress because access to earned sick days shouldn’t depend on your zip code. Illness doesn’t hesitate to cross from one zip code to another.
Right now, we are in nothing short of an emergency situation: we have an unprecedented outbreak of a virus and a botched testing kit response by the Trump administration, which has also recently proposed cutting funding to the CDC and NIH in its FY 2021 budget, disbanded the National Security Council’s global pandemic response team and has yet to fill the vacancy, and ended overseas programs to stem pandemics. At the same time, we also lack domestic public health policies that most other countries have. For instance, over 140 other countries have a guaranteed minimum number of paid sick days and we do not.
To address a critical crisis and to keep our economy moving into the future, we urgently need not only paid sick days, but also full access to affordable health care and childcare, and paid family/medical leave in our nation. We need federal funds quickly moved to support testing, scientists, medical professionals, states, localities, businesses and families in the fight against the coronavirus. And the Trump administration not only needs to fix the coronavirus testing protocol rapidly (and not just say they are fixing it) and push the CDC to release data so public health experts can take appropriate action, they also need to work with Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act.
It’s time, Mr. President, to take the coronavirus seriously before even more American lives are sacrificed to the delusion that this will just go away. As a resident of Kirkland, Washington, I can assure you that the coronavirus is not a hoax.
And as the executive director of MomsRising, an organization of over a million people with members in every state in our nation, I can assure you that the moms of America know this is an emergency and are also demanding immediate action. The federal government needs to act quickly and get in front of this before what is happening in my community happens in countless cities and towns across America.