Casual news consumers might not have made the connection last week, but the headline-making announcement of a new coronavirus testing initiative by three San Antonio philanthropic leaders preceded by days a related and long-overdue testing announcement by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Both announcements focused on the value of expanding coronavirus testing to include people with no symptoms. Doing so will help identify and isolate individuals unknowingly spreading the virus. The expanded testing is seen by public health experts, elected officials, and business leaders as key to safely reopening schools, workplaces, the hospitality industry, and public gathering spots.

If the newly launched Community Labs at BioBridge achieves its initial goal of testing 600 public school students daily and eventually expanding to test 12,000 people daily, San Antonio could serve as a national model for how to further limit the spread of the virus.

“One [goal] is to stop the threat in San Antonio, and secondly, we hope to inspire other cities, other communities, to do the same,” said downtown developer and philanthropist Graham Weston, who conceived the project after learning about research underway at the Broad Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard. 

Rackspace co-founder Graham Weston speaks at the ScaleUp Summit at the San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter.
Graham Weston Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The local effort is being financed and directed by Weston and his 80/20 Foundation in partnership with the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation, led by prominent attorney Tullos Wells, and the Tobin Endowment Chairman and Trustee J. Bruce Bugg Jr., who also is the chairman and CEO of Southwest Bancshares and current chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.

That trio of benefactors represents a lot of political and philanthropic firepower, but even their $2.5 million effort underscores the limitations of private funders and the need for the federal and state governments to follow their lead to scale up the testing of asymptomatic populations.

“Graham and Tullos and I have tried to band together and do a number of projects to help the San Antonio community. This one is larger than anything we’ve ever taken on,” Bugg told reporters and others gathered at the nonprofit BioBridge, which also oversees the San Antonio Blood Bank, on Thursday. “I believe what we are launching today in San Antonio, Texas, has the opportunity to be a game-changer for this whole race to eradicate COVID-19.”

The evidence-based assessment that controlling the coronavirus spread will require expanded testing and continued mask use and social distancing has been contradicted by President Donald Trump. His political appointees in the Department of Health and Human Services were exposed and forced to leave office last week for suppressing publication of CDC guidance bulletins confirming the value of testing asymptomatic individuals.

I see two key takeaways from the week’s news.

One, San Antonians need to resist complacency as both the rate of confirmed cases and the positivity rate continue to decline. The advent of the flu season and the growing social pressure to reopen society pose parallel threats as fall gives way to winter in the coming months. That only underscores the importance of the new testing initiative at BioBridge.

Two, there is no room for politics in public health. Nor is there room for imposing partisan views on the independent practice of science and medicine that serve as the foundation for sensible public policies. The intrusion of partisan politics in the national response to the pandemic, fed by conservative websites and news personalities, has worsened and prolonged the impact across the country. That propaganda continues to enable the spread of the coronavirus. Ignorance, literally, is killing Americans and leaving many others sickened.

The surest path to a safe and sustained reopening of the economy and society is control of the virus spread through enhanced testing and continued adherence to social distancing, mask use, hand washing and other measures. For science deniers and others who resist such selfless behavior, consider this: there isn’t much difference between asking you to wear clothes in public and asking you to don a face mask.

Do it for your loved ones and all the rest of us if not for yourself.

Disclosure: The 80/20 Foundation, the Tobin Endowment, and Tullos Wells are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business and nonprofit members, click here.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.