President Donald Trump has downplayed the need for widespread access to novel coronavirus testing in his push to reopen the U.S. economy, contrary to recommendations from health experts that much greater testing and contact tracing are essential for a safe return to normalcy.
He's insisted, over objections from some governors, that there is enough testing for states to reopen, even as the White House instituted increased testing and required staffers in the West Wing to wear masks over fears that the virus has invaded the cramped offices close to the Oval Office.
On Friday, when President Trump identified Vice President Mike Pence's press secretary and wife to top Trump aide, Katie Miller, as the most recent White House aide to test positive for the novel virus, after one of the president's valet attendants also tested positive, he used Miller as an example of why testing may not be necessary.
"This is why the whole concept of tests aren't necessarily great. The tests are perfect but something can happen between the test where it's good and then something happens and, all of a sudden, she was tested very recently and tested negative. And then today, I guess, for some reason she tested positive," Trump said Friday.
During an interview with Fox News Friday morning, the president ticked through the current testing figures, continuing to tout the U.S. as having "the best tests." When asked about the positive test result for one of his valets, the president offered the same argument.
"This is why testing isn't necessary. We have the best testing in the world, but testing's not necessarily the answer because they were testing them," Trump told Fox.
"I will tell you, you look at some cases, some people think they're doing it for politics," Trump continued, suggesting some Democratic governors are moving slowly to undercut him politically. "Here we go again. But they think they're doing it because it will hurt me the longer it takes to -- to hurt me in the election, the longer it takes to open up."
"Because some of these people are being unrealistic -- they're being ridiculous. I've looked at a couple of states that are being absolutely ridiculous. But ultimately, the people are forcing it," Trump said Friday, before doubling down on his criticism of Democratic governors, like Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday.
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Many Democratic governors and public health experts, meanwhile, say testing combined with contact tracing, which involves tracking down others with whom the infected person had contact, is the most effective way to slow the spread until a vaccine is available.
With additional measures being considered this week at the White House, critics of the administration also question when widespread testing, contact tracing and protective equipment will be available to all everyday Americans returning to work.
According to the COVID Tracking Project, testing for the coronavirus in the U.S. has steadily improved to around 264,000 tests a day -- nearly nine million tests total as of Monday -- but the U.S. is still below proposed benchmarks from several experts.
Researchers at the Harvard University, for example, calculated that the U.S. would need to do approximately 500,000 tests per day, as a bare minimum, by May 1 -- a figure they have since revised to 900,000 for May 15 as more states ease restrictions.
Trump and his political allies, however, have touted the total number of coronavirus tests conducted in the U.S., though the country still lags behind countries like Italy and Denmark in per capita tests performed.
Despite the reality that there still aren't enough tests for every American who wants to return to work to get one, Trump denied any issues in an interview last week with ABC News' "World News Tonight" Anchor David Muir. When asked whether "any worker who's nervous about going back" would have access to both diagnostic tests for the virus and antibody, or serological tests, "right now," Trump replied, "There should be no problem."
The same day Adm. Brett Giroir, who is in charge of the government's testing efforts, told Time that "there is absolutely no way on Earth, on this planet or any other planet, that we can do 20 million tests a day, or even five million tests a day."
Trump continued his conflicting messaging the following day, insisting in the Oval Office that he had "never said" the U.S. would hit the 5-million-per-day benchmark -- but in the same breath said, "I think we will."
And with the average American hearing less from prominent and trusted coronavirus task force members like Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, their comments on the state of testing in the U.S. have flickered across sporadic media interviews in the last week.
With Fauci in "modified quarantine" himself, it's unclear if they'll be in attendance at Thursday's briefing or speak candidly at it -- though Trump and Fauci have publicly disagreed on testing before.
After Fauci told Time in late April that he was "not overly confident" with the county's testing capacity and said, "We absolutely need to significantly ramp up, not only the number of tests but the capacity to actually perform them," Trump dismissed the doctor's comments.
"I don't agree with him on that, no, I think we're doing a great job on testing," Trump said in the White House briefing room, though Fauci was not present to defend himself.
More recently, Fauci emphasized the need for testing to National Geographic last week, and unlike comments the president has made, Fauci said, "I don't think there's a chance that this virus is just going to disappear."
"Shame on us if we don't have enough tests by the time this so-called return might occur in the fall and winter," he said, suggesting that the U.S. needs to make sure there's an adequate supply of tests and a system for getting those tests to the people who most need them before a second wave of the virus hits. "It's going to be around, and if given the opportunity, it will resurge."
Birx, often diplomatic and hesitant to criticize the White House, did break from a suggestion Trump made last week that the U.S. should conduct less testing because its make the country's case count higher.
"The media likes to say we have the most [coronavirus] cases, but we do, by far, the most testing. If we did very little testing, we wouldn't have the most cases. So, in a way, by doing all of this testing, we make ourselves look bad," Trump said last Wednesday.
Though Birx didn't directly contradict the president, she stressed that testing efforts are essential and should be ramped up when asked about his comments.
"I've been very encouraged about two parts of the testing," Birx told CNN last Thursday. "One, the dramatic increase in the number of tests we're doing per week. We hope this week to get close or over eight million (total). We're going up."
She estimated that about 2.5 percent of all Americans have been tested, adding that the number is increasing by half a percent every week. As with many experts, she said testing and contact tracing are proven to be critical to helping identify cases locally and contain the spread.
Birx also stressed the importance of "being proactive about testing," and monitoring high-risk places with vulnerable populations such as prisons, long-term care center and inner city communities -- potentially what the administration may be announcing this afternoon, after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, announced required twice-weekly testing for nursing staffers in his state.
During a White House meeting with Republican House lawmakers last week, Trump repeated his widely discredited prediction that the pandemic will disappear on its own, and extended his downplaying of testing to vaccines.
"I feel about vaccines like I feel about tests. This is going to go away without a vaccine," Trump said Friday. "It's going to go away and it's, we're not going to see it again, hopefully, after a period of time. You may have some, some flare-ups," in the fall.
"They die, too," he claimed of viruses, contrary to his own scientists.
What to know about the coronavirus:
- How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
- What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
- Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: Coronavirus map