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Why Silicon Valley got coronavirus response right

April 13, 2020
Ro's Op-Eds
Ro Khanna

San Francisco Chronicle 

Nearly three months after the first confirmed coronavirus case on United States soil, hospitalizations and deaths continue to grow daily by the thousands. Sadly, projections indicate we are far from out of the woods. However, amid an endless cascade of missteps and missed signals by federal decisionmakers, Santa Clara County, in the heart of Silicon Valley, offers an example of how science-based, decisive leadership in the fight against the coronavirus can save lives.

On Jan. 23, three days after the first confirmed case of the coronavirus in the U.S., the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, led by Dr. Sara Cody, established an incident command center. This proactive step, eight days before the county’s first confirmed case, was the first of many examples of public officials in Silicon Valley demonstrating forward-thinking leadership driven by data and science.

Dr. Cody made a difficult decision on March 13 to cancel most public gatherings of over 35 people. Two days later she was confronted with a much more dire reality. New results from a county public health study estimated 8% of all patients at area health clinics suffering from respiratory symptoms had COVID-19. This discovery showed what scarce testing could not: The coronavirus was more widespread than we initially thought.

Shutting down one of the most economically prosperous regions in the world was not an easy call. However, county officials were faced with a deadly virus spreading at an exponential rate. Each day of delay could endanger thousands of lives. On a tense Sunday night call, they made the decision to halt all essential travel and operations in the area. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimates that if New York City acted in the same way a week sooner than it did, it could have reduced its death toll by up to 80%.

The next day, March 16, Santa Clara County collaborated with five other Bay Area counties to announce an unprecedented shelter-in-place order affecting 6.7 million residents. At the time of the order, Santa Clara County was considered one of the nation’s coronavirus “hot zones” with 138 cases and four deaths. Since then, the number of national cases and deaths have grown more than 10 times faster than county figures. California finally issued its own statewide stay-home order four days later and, in part due to the delay, has seen its cases grow more than four times faster than the county’s cases. Dr. Cody’s bold action when every hour counted protected the Bay Area from the overflowing hospitals and mobile morgues we see in some cities around the world.

Santa Clara County lies in the heart of the science and technology revolution, and our local leaders demonstrated the same qualities that launched the region to prosperity: reliance on data, deference to experts and commitment to collaboration. Dr. Cody recently told me she believes acting early may have caused disruption, but it also saved lives and reduced long-term harm. Waiting to act still would have led to eventual disruption, but without any of the benefits. That is the kind of forward thinking that we need from our public servants.

We need federal leadership that is willing to listen to experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates who also called for a unified national stay-home order. We need federal leadership that analyzes data to assess national readiness, and then proactively uses authorities like the Defense Production Act to fill the gaps in vital supplies like testing equipment and protective gear. We need federal leadership that solves problems by convening and empowering experienced public servants, expert academics and private sector leaders.

It isn’t hard to see why Silicon Valley exhibited a model public health response in the face of the coronavirus 19 crisis. The evidence is clear. But the truth is this: Smart governance can be replicated anywhere. It just takes public officials who are committed to listening to experts and collaborating with others.

This moment calls for innovative and decisive leadership. Federal decision makers need to look no further than Santa Clara County for the blueprint on how to take the lead and save lives.