Trump downplays need for widespread testing before reopening economy

President Trump on Thursday shrugged off the need to significantly expand nationwide coronavirus testing capabilities in order to be able to restart the U.S. economy and then keep it open.

The president, who has expressed optimism that parts of the country could begin easing social distancing restrictions by early May, told reporters a White House briefing that ramping up testing to levels recommended by health experts to quickly identify new clusters would be a goal, but is not a necessity to send people back to work.

“We want to have it and we’re going to see if we have it. Do you need it? No. Is it a nice thing to do? Yes,” Trump said. “We’re talking about 325 million people. And that’s not going to happen, as you can imagine, and it would never happen with anyone else either.” 

But experts say that widespread testing is a crucial step.

Easing blunt measures like stay-at-home orders requires enough widespread testing to identify infected people so they can be isolated and people they’ve been in contact with notified, they say. 

While some progress has been made on testing, experts say the U.S. is not at the level it needs to be to achieve that.  

Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said Thursday that several million tests per week are needed, calling for “rapid progress” on that front.  

“In a setting where there will still be spread and we’ll still be slowly exiting the epidemic; we need capacity to test several million people a week (and probably more) to get broad enough coverage in community to detect outbreaks early and make case containment strategies work,” Gottlieb tweeted. 

The U.S. tested about 960,000 people in the past week, according to the COVID Tracking Project. 

“Without a lot greater testing capacity, there is no way we can safely open up again,” tweeted Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. 


He pointed to problems obtaining needed testing supplies like swabs and chemicals used in the tests, and called for Congress to provide more funding to ramp up the effort.  

Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus response, said 56 percent of those tested so far are female and 44 percent are male. Sixteen percent of women and girls who have been tested were positive for coronavirus, while 23 percent of the men and boys tested were confirmed to have the virus.

Birx attributed the disparity to men waiting longer to seek a test, making them more likely to have the virus once they get one. 

Both Birx and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, the top two health officials on the White House coronavirus task force, said at Thursday’s briefing that it’s unlikely the country will be able to reopen all at once given disparities in the number of cases across state lines. They cited the ability to conduct contact tracing to identify new cases and quickly isolate those who might be infected as a key factor in ensuring that the country did not experience a second wave of infections upon reopening businesses.

Vice President Pence assured the public that the administration would not jump ahead of guidance from public health experts in a push to reopen the economy.

“I think most of America knows that no one wants to reopen America more than President Donald Trump,” he said. “But the president’s told us we need to do it responsibly, and we’re going to follow the data.”

Scores of businesses across the country have been shuttered due to orders by governors and millions of Americans have filed for unemployment in recent weeks as the virus grips the U.S. economy. 

The strength of the economy has long been central to Trump’s argument for reelection, and he has in recent days returned to talking about the importance of reopening businesses and sending Americans back to work sooner rather than later. 

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Thursday morning that he could envision companies reopening in May, so long as Trump gives the go ahead based on medical data.

Tags Anthony Fauci Coronavirus Donald Trump Steven Mnuchin

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