Pandemic Timeline

Where Are the Tests?

Where Are the Tests?

National Institutes on Health, AntibodyTest

Pandemic Timeline: Where Are the Tests?

By June 1, more than 100,000 Americans will have died from COVID-19. Compare that to South Korea’s 262 and Australia’s 98 current fatalities, where unlike Trump, leaders quickly implemented widespread testing and tracing programs. Public health officials isolated infected individuals, traced their contacts with others, followed the potential spread of the virus, and targeted the response.

As Trump failed to implement an effective nationwide testing program, he lied about it. Now he’s shifting the burden to individual states while urging governors to “reopen” in violation of his own testing and tracing standards. Even Trump’s medical experts agree that such a blind push to resume social and economic activity is a fool’s errand.

Lies, False Promises, and Obfuscation

Mar. 6: “Anyone that wants a test gets a test,” Trump says. Politifact labels it a “Pants-on-Fire” lie.

Also on Mar. 6: Vice President Mike Pence says, “[I]n a matter of weeks, the coronavirus tests will be broadly available to the public and available to any American that is symptomatic and has a concern about — about the possibility of having contracted the coronavirus.” Not true.

When a reporter asks FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn how many people have been tested so far, he suggests checking with the CDC. The answer that Hahn didn’t want to give is that the US has completed 2,983 US tests to date — less than two percent of the 165,000 tests conducted in South Korea, which is isolating, tracing and containing the virus.

Mar. 13: Asked if he takes responsibility for the delay in testing, Trump says, “I don’t take responsibility at all….”

Mar. 18: If federal officials have shipped millions of tests, as you and your colleagues have said, why, as the federal government says, have only 59,000 tests been processed to this point?” a reporter asks Trump. “We just heard from the Atlanta Public Health director saying that they have fewer than 50 test kits for more than 900,000 citizens. Where are the tests?”

Trump defers to Pence, who defers to Dr. Deborah Birx. “[T]here was backlog,” she says. “There were individuals who had been tested who hadn’t had their specimen run because of the slow throughput. It’s now in a high-speed platform.” She doesn’t mention shortages of swabs and reagents required to administer the tests.

Mar. 19: A reporter asks Trump to “explain the gap” between his claim that plenty of tests are available and reports that people with symptoms can’t get tested. “Well, I can’t — I cannot explain the gap,” Trump answers. “I’m hearing very good things on the ground….”

Mar. 20: “What do you say to the Americans who are scared that they have symptoms and can’t get a test?’ a reporter asks Trump. “Yeah. Well, okay. I’m not — I’m not hearing it,” Trump says.

Mar. 21: Assistant Secretary for Health and Human Services Brett Giroir says that the government has put more than 10 million tests into the US commercial market and that by Mar. 28 more than 27 million will be available. He doesn’t reveal that shortages of swabs and reagents render the tests alone useless.

Mar. 23: A reporter tells Trump that some states report shortages of swabs and reagents: “So what is the administration doing to get all the states the materials that they need?” Trump deflects, saying that the Army Corps of Engineers is building field hospitals.

Late March: Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) requests 60,000 plastic tips to store reagents and 10,000 testing swabs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which tells him that it doesn’t have enough supplies.

Shifting Blame and Pivoting to the Economy

Apr. 13-14: Worried about state governors’ stay-at-home orders hurting his re-election prospects that depend on a strong economy, Trump claims falsely that he has “total” authority to overrule the governors and reopen the country. But 24 hours later, he reverses himself. Knowing that governors lack the supplies they need, Trump shifts the burden of testing and tracing onto them:

[T]he governors will use whatever testing is necessary. And if they’re not satisfied with their testing, they shouldn’t open[T]he governors are supposed to do testing. It’s up to the governors… The governors are doing the testing. It’s now not up — and it hasn’t been up — to the federal government.”

Apr. 15: Governors and health officials report continuing shortages of swabs, reagents, and other materials necessary for COVID-19 tests.

Apr. 16: Trump announces his plan for the country’s phased reopening, which requires states to have rigorous testing and tracing in place before loosening restrictions.

Apr. 17: Trump tweets: “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” “LIBERATE” protests begin throughout the country.

Also on Apr. 17: “The governors are responsible for testing,” Trump reiterates. “Swabs can be done easily by the governors themselves. Mostly, it’s cotton. It’s not a big deal. You can get cotton easily.”

Apr. 20: The US is conducting only about 150,000 tests per day. But a Harvard panel of health experts concludes that reopening the country safely requires at least five million tests per day by early June, increasing to 20 million tests daily by mid-summer.

Also on Apr. 20: A reporter reminds Trump that on Mar. 21, Giroir promised 27 million tests by the end of March, but so far only four million people have been tested: “So where are the other 23 million or so tests?” 

Giroir answers that more than 40 million tests are “in the marketplace,” but there has been a shortage of swabs. “And as simple as a swab is: A swab is not a swab is not a swab,” he says. “And we need to be very careful that when we put something in a person and tell them a test result, that it’s really correct.”

Apr. 21: Pence visits Wisconsin to tout Trump’s response to the pandemic. Of the 60,000 plastic tips that the state had requested from FEMA in late March for COVID-19 testing, it has received only 2,800. Of the 10,000 testing swabs the state requested, it has received only 3,500.

Truth Revealed

Apr. 27: The US is conducting about 200,000 tests per day. A reporter reminds Pence of his promise that the US would have completed four million total tests by mid-March and we “just now got there in the last few days.” What went wrong?

“I appreciate the question,” Pence says, “but it represents a misunderstanding on your part and the — and frankly, the — a lot of people in the public’s part about the difference between having a test versus the ability to actually process the test.” [Emphasis supplied]

The reporter presses, “So when you said four million tests, seven weeks ago, you were just talking about tests being sent out, not actually being — being completed?”

“[P]recisely correct,” Pence answers without missing a beat.

Apr. 28: Responding to the Harvard panel’s recommendation that the US needs five million tests per day to reopen safely in June and 20 million daily by September, Giroir tells Time, 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.”

At a press briefing later that day, a reporter asks Trump about the five million-per-day testing benchmark: “[C]an you get to that benchmark?” Without explanation, Trump contradicts Giroir, saying, “Well, it will increase it and it’ll increase it by much more than that [five million] in the very near future. 

Apr. 30: Congress’ attending physician tells senior Republican officials that he has insufficient capacity to test all 100 senators for COVID-19 when they return to work on May 4. Tests will be available only for staffers and senators who are ill, even though asymptomatic individuals can infect others.

Apr. 30: Dr. Anthony Fauci, a member of Trump’s COVID-19 task force, warns that states reopening without adequate testing and tracing will suffer outbreaks. Meanwhile, Trump pressures governors to reopen states and encourages protesters to push in that direction.

May 4: An epidemiological model cited frequently by the White House updates its projections. Incorporating rising mobility in most states, as well as the easing of social distancing measures expected in 31 states by May 11, it doubles the number of expected US COVID-19 deaths to nearly 135,000 by early August.

May 6: The US is conducting about 250,000 tests per day. Asked if reopening the country will increase COVID-19 deaths, Trump says, “It could very well be the case.” With respect to testing, he says, “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.”

May 7: The White House acknowledges that one of Trump’s personal valets has tested positive for COVID-19. Hours later, it announces that Trump and everyone who comes into contact with him will be tested daily. Shortly thereafter, Trump says that testing for the virus is “somewhat overrated.”

May 11: During a Rose Garden briefing, Trump says, “We’ve prevailed on testing.” Two large posters behind him proclaim falsely, “AMERICA LEADS THE WORLD IN TESTING.” Although the US has the performed highest raw number of COVID-19 tests, more than 30 other nations are ahead in per capita testing.

May 14: Speaking at an event in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Trump says, “We have more cases than anybody in the world. But why? Because we do more testing. When you test, you have a case. When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.”

May 15: Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, says that forecasting models now predict that total US deaths from COVID-19 will surpass 100,000 by June 1.

As Trump lies and dissembles, remember this fact: The US has only 4 percent of the world’s population. Yet it has one-third of worldwide COVID-19 infections and more than 25 percent of resulting deaths — so far. The US ranks among the top ten nations in most deaths per million of population.

Trump can’t make us look any worse than he already has.

 

Read all installments of Steven Harper’s Pandemic Timeline.

This post was updated on May 17, 2020.

Steven Harper

Steven J. Harper launched his acclaimed Trump-Russia Timeline on BillMoyers.com and it now appears regularly on Dan Rather’s News & Guts and Just Security, where it first appeared in December 2018. Harper is a lawyer who teaches at Northwestern University Law School, and the author of several books, including The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis and Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story (a Chicago Tribune “Best Book of the Year”). Follow him at stevenjharper1

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