“Can openers” refers to an old joke:
There is a story that has been going around about a physicist, a chemist, and an economist who were stranded on a desert island with no implements and a can of food. The physicist and the chemist each devised an ingenious mechanism for getting the can open; the economist merely said, “Assume we have a can opener”!
Recently, two conservatives made a case for reopening universities in the fall, and proposed a plan to do so. While there are a lot of problems with the plan, such as it assumes most college students don’t live at home (false for most students, except at elite colleges), it ultimately suffers from the can opener problem. The very first item they proposed, as the kids like to say, is doing a lot of heavy lifting (boldface mine):
First, institutions should put in place a comprehensive testing and contact tracing program for any student attending class in person or living on campus, any faculty member offering instruction, or any support staff or administrators regularly interacting with students. They should consider testing faculty, staff and students when they arrive on campus (or require the results from a recent diagnostic test before returning) and continue a regular testing regimen as the school year goes on. Future scientific innovations, such as serology tests that can accurately determine who might be immune to the virus, will give academic communities even greater reassurance.
Many colleges already have communications systems that allow them to notify students and affiliates of emergency situations on campus via SMS or email. These systems should be adapted to furnish test results, inform recipients of possible exposure to the virus and assist in contact tracing when cases are identified.
If most private institutions (companies, universities, etc.) were in the position to do this–and presumably that would mean most public health agencies could too–then we would be containing the problem. In other words, if we have reached the point where a university can rapidly conduct hundreds of tests in a day, communicate those results to students, faculty, and public health authorities, and then use that information to coordinate a public health response, then we probably have COVID-19 under reasonable control.
(I can’t remember who wrote it, but someone on the Twitterz called these programs ‘cries for more testing.’)
Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon. Il Trumpe et alia have shown very little interest in building such a system (e.g., as expected, the slumlord son-in-law didn’t deliver on federal testing sites), ensuring continuity of supply, and building or reusing a reporting infrastructure. Also, many states don’t have the resources or the political will to do this on their own (and that’s before you get to complications like travel across state lines).
But it’s a very fine can opener.
In some cases, universities are providing testing services to their communities. Where this is true, testing students and faculty comes with the additional cost of no longer testing the wider community.