Twenty-six million coronavirus tests have gone missing. Or maybe they never existed to begin with.
On March 21, the White House said 27 million coronavirus test kits would be out in the health care system and available to patients by the end of March. At the end of March, however, the national total for coronavirus tests was just 1.1 million. Some tests were still in the pipeline, yet mayors and governors have been clamoring for the tests, which are crucial to containing the virus. So what happened to more than 20 million tests?
At the White House coronavirus briefing on March 31, Vice President Mike Pence basically said “never mind” about those 27 million tests. “The misunderstanding early on was there were many tests being distributed,” Pence said. He described an “antiquated” distribution system that could only process 30 to 50 tests per day. When asked if the nation should disregard that old, antiquated 27 million number the White House put out just 10 days earlier, Pence said, “yes.”
Pence then talked about the new test Abbott Labs is producing, which can be processed quickly at the testing point and doesn’t have to be sent back to a lab. Abbott says it’s ramping up to production levels of about 5 million test kits per month. Several other firms are rolling out quick tests as well.
Eventually, this production surge will generate all the tests we need. But we don’t have enough tests right now, and the misdirection, misinformation and delays emanating from the White House are making the outbreak worse than it needs to be, while amplifying the economic damage.
Trump himself dismissed coronavirus for seven weeks after it first surfaced in the United States, saying as recently as March 10, “Just stay calm. It will go away.” Since the virus propagates at exponential rates, the delay in addressing it let the bug gain a foothold in many U.S. cities.
Some say now is not the time to point fingers for past mistakes, yet Trump’s inaction still threatens to make the problem worse. The Pentagon says it has 2,000 ventilators in military stockpiles, but it hasn’t done anything with them because nobody up the chain has told them to. And despite a more serious tone, Trump is still talking about a “painful two-week stretch ahead,” when real experts know this is going to last for months, and perhaps get intolerably bad.
These shortcomings all reflect a bungling Trump administration that can’t admit it needs to be on a wartime footing and find sharp decision makers to put in command. Trump is so detached he said on March 31 that he wasn’t aware test shortages are a problem. How could he not know that? Governors have been screaming about the problem, and telling the White House directly.
A massive rollout of coronavirus tests is required to contain the virus, since there’s no vaccine and the virus is highly contagious. There’s no way to reopen businesses in the nation’s many hotspots, and send people back to work, if you don’t have tests to determine who’s sick and who’s healthy, on a repeat basis.
Scott Gottlieb, who ran the Food and Drug Administration under Trump from 2017 to 2019, says widespread testing is essential for the nation to get on “the road back to normal.” First, he says, we need a “sentinel surveillance system” based on testing random samples of the population to determine how widespread the virus is. Then we need federal guidelines allowing doctors to “test liberally” for the disease, with insurers or the government covering the tab. Finally, we need antibody tests to figure who might be immune.
We’re far from this sort of protocol. Many patients with coronavirus symptoms haven’t been tested, because the tests are so scarce. Patients are simply told to stay home, assume they have it and only go to the hospital if symptoms become severe. We’ll get to widespread testing eventually, but the lack of data now forces the business shutdowns that are sending the economy into a sharp recession.
While downplaying testing problems, Trump is now talking about a $2 trillion infrastructure bill to jumpstart the economy, once it’s safe for road and construction crews to mingle on the job. He’s got the wrong stimulus in mind. The best thing for the economy right now is a wartime effort to muster all available testing capacity until we can test every American necessary to contain the virus. That could be hundreds of millions or even billions of tests, since it makes sense to test some people repeatedly. Maybe we’re on our way, but it seems foolish to believe the White House on that.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: email@example.com. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.