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What’s lacking from Maryland’s COVID-19 test kits? A dose of transparency | COMMENTARY

Maryland National Guard members direct traffic at the COVID-19 testing center housed in the Vehicle Emission Inspection Program station in Glen Burnie.
Maryland National Guard members direct traffic at the COVID-19 testing center housed in the Vehicle Emission Inspection Program station in Glen Burnie. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

It was with considerable fanfare that Gov. Larry Hogan acquired 500,000 coronavirus tests from LabGenomics, a South Korean company, last month. There was a news conference in front of the State House. Some credit was graciously given to first lady Yumi Hogan for helping make the arrangements. There was much ado about “hiding” the testing supplies to keep the federal government from seizing and redistributing such a hot commodity. The purchase even got its own name, “Operation Enduring Friendship,” that made it sound like rather a big deal.

“It really was an amazing team effort,” the governor said not long after personally welcoming a Korean Air Boeing 777 plane carrying the supplies to BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.

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But an odd thing has happened since that well-publicized acquisition more than five weeks ago. Despite the broad need for more COVID-19 testing on the front lines, including at the state’s own hospital and prison facilities, the test kits appear to mostly remain in storage. Why? There are missing components required for them to actually be put in use. In Annapolis, lawmakers complained of stonewalling as state Department of General Services administration officials briefed them Wednesday on coronavirus-related procurement. DGS was willing to talk about how challenging acquiring the tests had been, but on why they aren’t being used, officials could only suggest talking to other officials with the state health department who already have repeatedly refused to brief those same legislators.

That is bizarre. But it’s also unnecessary. Michael Ricci, Mr. Hogan’s communications director, acknowledged in an email to The Sun on Thursday that the kits lacked certain supplies, such as nasal swabs, and certain chemicals, a circumstance that was reported by this newspaper last month. Why aren’t more tests in use? He said they are gradually being tapped as more supplies become available "in concert with other tests we have on hand, testing volume in the state continues to steadily increase, and so forth.” If that’s the case, why not shout it from the rooftops let alone at a legislative hearing? Why not give exact numbers? Exact details?

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Such specifics matter whether they cast the administration in a favorable light or something else. Downplaying the inconvenient (or worse) is the kind of credibility-sapping behavior we’ve seen repeatedly (and far more egregiously) from the Trump administration. We thought the governor was better than that. Whatever the problem with the tests, Marylanders deserve a straight answer, and so do the legislators who represent their interests in the General Assembly. No less than $9 million in tax funds paid for these tests, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Losing confidence in the candor of your government is the sort of thing that can cost lives, and that’s no exaggeration.

Just this week, deaths from the coronavirus outbreak in the United States surpassed the 100,000 mark. That’s significant. So often the fight against the pandemic is described as a “war,” yet the casualties of this particular conflict aren’t getting much attention from the nation’s commander-in-chief. Here’s a worthwhile question to ponder: How does the COVID-19 battle compare to U.S. military losses of the past? It’s roughly the equivalent of three World War II Normandy campaigns, seven Okinawas or 27 Antietams (and that’s only if you count both Union and Confederate dead). The average coronavirus victim may be older but their lives deserve to be respected. As do the potential victims to come.

Granted, we surely can’t deny that there are Democrats in Annapolis who wouldn’t mind taking this Republican governor down a notch or two, given how brightly his political light has been shining on the national stage of late. But none of that matters. Marylanders aren’t asking for anything more than full transparency no matter the forum. What happened? What are the options? What is the strategy? Is that really so difficult?

Marylanders generally give Governor Hogan high marks for how he’s handled the pandemic. Just this week, a survey by longtime Maryland pollster Patrick Gonzales found 63% believe the restrictions Mr. Hogan has put in place because of the virus are “about right.” And the governor’s approval rating is practically off the charts with 82% of Democratic voters liking his performance. It makes the 71% approval rating from members of his own party look a bit so-so. So what would a bout of candor cost him personally? Not much.

Maryland needs to be able to trust its public officials right now. As choices are made to reopen businesses and resume other activities, people must have confidence that government is acting in their best interests and not simply responding to political whims. Part of that trust requires a full disclosure of bad news. The governor has done so in the past. He needs to keep doing so whether the subject is testing or anything else related to the pandemic.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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