After approving a historically large $2 trillion stimulus package last month, Congress was back at it last week, kicking around a plan to spend more money to help that nation’s economy recover from this pandemic. It seems Washington is prepared to spare no expense when it comes to recovery — no expense, that is, except for the one thing that will actually boost public health and morale and get our economy moving again.

More than expanded small business loans or airline bailouts, what we need right now is to know what we’re dealing with. We need to stop “shooting in the dark,” as U.S. Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas) described it to us. We need COVID-19 testing on a massive scale.

In the absence of tests, America’s plan is essentially passive: quarantine everyone and wait for the curve to peak. But there is a more proactive approach. If we tested for the disease on a much broader scale, we could have a much better idea of who has it, who has already recovered from it, who is a carrier, who might have some immunity to it and where the disease is spreading most.

In military terms, testing could tell us more about our enemy. It could get us to the stage public health officials call “surveillance,” where we can watch and contain the disease rather than shelter in place and hope it doesn’t show up on our doorstep.

Such an approach would require several things we need from the federal government. It would require leadership to identify a common goal (the right goal) and rally people to the cause. It would require coordination, not contention, with state and local health authorities as well as private sector labs and hospitals. And it would require an awareness campaign on the level of that for the annual flu shot, so that every American who wants a test knows they can get one.

Only once we have testing on demand for all Americans will many Americans feel more comfortable in getting back to something resembling our old way of life.

This is where Washington should be focused. Congress should use its spare-no-expense attitude to push through a bill to fund nationwide testing efforts and awareness campaigns. We need a floor debate about the best path forward to reach a place where testing is not only providing surveillance but also peace of mind for Americans wondering whether they have or have had the virus. President Donald Trump should use his daily press briefings to call for this preferred future rather than to shift blame for mistakes of the past. And private industry should be unfettered as it produces more test kits and pursues treatments and vaccines.

Testing on this scale could give leaders clear and actionable data and give American workers confidence about going back to work when restrictions are lifted. Until we’re ready to do this, all our spending will be in an effort to dodge the problem more than solve it.

Editorial by The Dallas Morning News

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