WASHINGTON (CN) — Farmers and ranchers dealing with the fallout of the novel coronavirus will receive a $19 billion bailout from the federal government, President Donald Trump said during Friday’s White House coronavirus task force briefing.
The president said the U.S. Department of Agriculture will implement the $19 billion relief program for farmers and ranchers struggling to cope. Payments will be issued directly to farmers and ranchers while another tranche will flow directly toward food banks crumpling under the pandemic’s demands.
“The program will include direct payments to farmers as well as mass purchases of dairy, meat and agricultural produce to get that food to the people in need,” Trump said, noting that another $14 billion will be distributed to farmers in July.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the relief would be a welcome salve.
“Having to dump milk or plow under vegetables ready to market is not only financially distressing, but it’s heartbreaking as well to those who produce them, “ Perdue said.
The assistance, a welcome relief for farmers, comes as tensions between governors and the Trump administration escalate over what many state officials have publicly decried as a lack of coordination by the federal government and states on testing.
Vice President Mike Pence hosted a phone call with Democratic lawmakers ahead of Friday evening’s taskforce briefing. Senator Angus King, a Maine independent, aired some of his frustrations following the call during an appearance on CNN.
King said Trump’s desire to see the economy return to some semblance of what it was before the virus rocked the nation — and as soon as possible — directly undercuts the administration’s own continual failures to broadly coordinate testing with states.
“Adequate testing is the basis of safely reopening the economy,” King said, echoing the advice of most public health experts, medical professionals and virologists.
But during Friday’s briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said he believed the United States, with its 3.4 million tests issued, already means the U.S. is likely ready to begin phase one of easing regulations.
While expressing optimism, Fauci said it was crucial to understand that diagnostic tests are only one part of the equation.
There are pros and cons with the way the U.S. is conducting tests today. Diagnostic tests issued merely determine a person is currently positive or not. Antibody tests determine if a person has been infected previously but recovered.
“The part that is misunderstood is if you get a test today, that does not meant that tomorrow or the next day or the next day as you get exposed perhaps from someone who may not even know they’re infected, that means you are negative,” Fauci said.
A combination of a diagnostic test and an antibody test is good, but questions remain over how long a person with antibodies is protected until reinfection, he added.
“There is also a difference between testing and monitoring. For phase one, we have to identify, isolate and contact trace. As we pull back gradually on social distancing, we have to identify who is still infected and get them care,” Fauci said. “We cannot underestimate the importance of testing. It’s an important part of a multi-faceted way that we are going to control and end this outbreak.”
The Food and Drug Administration authorized two new antibody tests this week, bringing the total of such tests to four now circulating in the U.S.
Abbott Laboratories said Thursday that by June it would be able to ship 20 million tests per month. The company has already had a hand in launching three rapid-result tests for Covid-19 and is currently coordinating with companies like CVS to distribute tests.
According to the Johns Hopkins University and Medicine Coronavirus tracker, which monitors test rates by gathering data from private and public labs, just over 3.5 million tests have been issued in the U.S. The Covid Tracking Project estimates at least 120,000 tests have occurred per day for the last two weeks.
“No doubt we had a problem early on with tests. It had to be corrected and it was. It was an issue of embracing the way we have now and should have, embraced the private sector to make and provide tests at the level we will need them,” Fauci said.
Contact tracing, where volunteers go into communities to determine who has come into contact with the infected and alert those who may have been exposed, must be scaled up as well.
Experts like former CDC director Thomas Frieden suggested this week that at least 300,000 volunteer contact tracers are necessary to get a handle on the spread.
Admiral Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at the Health and Human Services Department, said Friday that for every positive case of coronavirus, there are about five contracts that must be traced.
Giroir said the CDC would assist the Health and Human Services Department to contact trace in hotspots or vulnerable areas like nursing homes and more details are expected in the coming days.
A representative from the CDC did not immediately return a request for comment.
Giroir also said Friday that 5 million additional swabs will be made available to states by the end of April.
While testing is ramping up, for now, Dr. Deborah Birx emphasized that the U.S. is only beginning to enter phase one of easing restrictions. If many asymptomatic individuals are found, then increased testing will have to occur, she said.
Vice President Pence vowed testing would scale as the U.S. moves into the second phase.
“I have not come across one laboratory or one laboratory director or one society that does not want to contribute to solve this issue of testing,” Birx said.