Earlier this week, I was talking to a friend who works as an occupational therapist in a nursing home. The expression on her face was similar to the one I imagined the rest of the world saw on my own: a glaze of bewilderment and bemusement that was periodically animated with an acknowledgement that all that any of us was doing was making it up as we went along.
“What are you going to write about?"
“I’m still figuring it out."
“I suppose that’s true of all of us.”
Hers was a situation I had yet to consider. I had read the stories out of Washington state, where a single long-term care facility in Kirkland had seen 63 patients test positive, 25 of whom had died. But it wasn’t until our conversation that I began to focus on another one of the numbers cited in each one of the reports. In addition to the cluster of elderly stricken with the coronavirus, 47 of the facility’s employees had tested positive.
“I guess they’re testing you nonstop,” I said.
She then walked me through the primary line of defense between the virus and its most vulnerable prey. When reporting for work, each staff member is subjected to a visual examination in which their temperature is taken to ensure they do not have a fever. Then, they are asked to attest that they have not traveled to any high-risk areas nor interacted with anybody who has tested positive. With that, the doors open, and the workday begins.
The conversation stuck with me. Later in the week, we would learn that the Sixers had become the latest NBA team to acquire tests for each of the members of its traveling party. As of Friday evening, at least 10 NBA players had tested positive for the virus, a number of whom were not showing any symptoms. This total does not include the three members of the Sixers organization who tested positive, as a statement released by the team did not specify if they are players.
It’s the asymptomatic part that I keep coming back to. At the time of his positive test, Jazz star Donovan Mitchell said that he had yet to experience the flu-like symptoms associated with the virus. The same goes for Celtics guard Marcus Smart, who released a video urging young Americans to take the virus seriously.
If Smart and Mitchell were nursing-home workers instead of NBA players, they would currently have no idea if they had the virus. They would show up to work each day with a 98.6-degree body temperature, sign the requisite forms, and spend the rest of their days working hands-on with members of this country’s most vulnerable population.
How does any of this make sense? It’s a question that I have posed to a number of healthcare professionals over the previous few days, and each time, I get the same answer.
“We’re advocating to prioritize testing for our residents and staff,” a spokesman for the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living said in a statement. "This is the most vulnerable population to COVID-19, and testing will help get residents out of isolation and staff back to work as soon as possible. We’ve met with the White House, the CDC, and CMS, and we are confident they are hard at work on this issue. "
And, yet, the statement continued, “The time required to develop and manufacture tests cannot keep up with the demand due to the virus’s spread and the large number of people with respiratory symptoms that mimic COVID-19.”
Which brings us back to the original question. If our priority as a nation really is to limit the number of deaths, and if deaths are most likely to occur among clusters of elderly Americans, then why are we testing clusters of young, healthy, asymptomatic athletes before we test those who have a much higher probability of infecting those who are most at risk?
Earlier this week, the President of the United States was asked a version of that question.
“Perhaps that’s been the story of life," Donald Trump said of the relative ease with which the rich and the famous were being tested. "That does happen on occasion, and I’ve noticed where some people have been tested fairly quickly.”
It is the system’s fault, not the Sixers', or the Nets', or the Lakers', or Adam Silver’s. Ours is an economy that is built on the acknowledgment that there is something inherently selfish about human nature. Such is the argument that the individualists always set forth whenever the conversation turns to inequity: that the collectivist utopia requires the negation of a fundamental aspect of our being, that the individual will always prioritize itself over the collective, that combating such a reality requires draconian measures.