Coronavirus briefing: Trump is confused about why more testing is vital

One exchange during Friday’s White House coronavirus press briefing illustrated that President Trump still fundamentally misunderstands why widespread and readily available testing is so crucial toward his goal of getting the economy back up and running again.

Asked by NBC’s Peter Alexander how he could possibly know that the coronaviruswill soon be in full retreat” without widespread testing, President Donald Trump said he’ll know because “people aren’t going to go to the hospital, people aren’t going to get sick.”

“You’re gonna see nobody’s gonna be getting sick anymore,” Trump continued. “It will be gone and it won’t be that much longer.”

What Trump overlooked, however, is that the coronavirus can be spread by people without symptoms. So merely testing people who are already sick will not be sufficient to stop the spread. Those who have come into contact with others who have tested positive will also need to be tested to make sure they aren’t unwittingly spreading the virus.

Public health experts understand this. As my colleague German Lopez detailed, new plans about what comes after the current period of stringent social distancing put together by the left-leaning Center for American Progress and right-leaning American Enterprise Institute both emphasize that “widespread testing will let public health officials detect and subsequently contain any future outbreaks before everything has to be locked down.” But the US is currently only completing about 130,000 tests per day on average — a far cry from the 500,000 or so experts agree will be necessary to contain the coronavirus until a vaccine is available.

At another point during Friday’s briefing, Trump claimed that “vast areas of the country” are not experiencing outbreaks on the scale of New York or Louisiana and therefore “do not need” to conduct widespread testing.

“You don’t need testing there,” Trump said.

But with the virus having already spread to all 50 states, widespread testing will be needed to prevent future outbreaks from spiraling out of control. His comments also elide that, as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said earlier Friday, more testing capacity will be needed to get his state’s economy back up and running. Cuomo suggested that Trump should use the Defense Production Act to compel private companies to manufacture test kits.

Trump’s misguided comments about testing on Friday came one day after he categorically denied the necessity of a nationwide testing system.

“We have a great testing system. Right now, we have the best testing system in the world,” Trump said, ignoring that the US is still testing far fewer people per capita than countries that are having more success fighting the coronavirus, like South Korea and Japan.

The irony of all this is that nobody is pushing harder to relax social distancing than Trump, who faces a tough reelection fight this year that will be made more difficult unless the wreckage of the economy is put back together relatively quickly. In fact, Trump closed his briefing on Friday by insisting that “we have to get back to work. We have to get our country open.”

“I have a big decision coming up, and I only hope to God that’s it’s the right decision,” he added, alluding to his deliberations about when it will be appropriate to recommend the relaxation of social distancing.

Public health experts widely agree that more robust coronavirus testing is the quickest means to that end. Trump not only doesn’t get that, but he is actively working at cross purposes: The federal government ended funding for local coronavirus testing sites on Friday. And when Trump was asked by CNN’s Jim Acosta on Friday about officials like Cuomo who say that more testing capacity is needed, Trump went on the attack, admonishing Acosta that “you shouldn’t be asking that kind of a question … it is very insulting to a lot of great people”

Trump, however, seems resolved to plow forward with trying to restore the economy even in lieu of more testing. Asked on Friday what metrics he’ll use to decide when to relax social distancing, Trump pointed to his head and said, “the metric is right here. That’s my metrics. That’s all I can do.”

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