WASHINGTON (CN) — The view from the White House on America’s testing capability for Covid-19 was undeniably rosy Monday afternoon, despite the virus spreading through the ranks of the Trump administration itself and the U.S. death count climbing ever closer to 100,000.
The self-praise has been heralded from the White House for weeks, with President Donald Trump lauding the United States as a leader in testing capacity again late Monday during a contentious press conference in the Rose Garden.
“It’s the most advanced and robust testing system anywhere in the world by far,” Trump said Monday. “We’re taking new steps to make tests more widely available. We marshalled every resource, public, private, economic, scientific and industrial, all at your disposal.”
In reality, testing capacity has increased across the U.S. only recently as the novel coronavirus has spread across the country for more than three months. Testing has been boosted in large part due to concerted efforts by governors to coordinate with private and public labs for both tests and personal protective equipment, even as the White House initially dithered on whether to enforce executive branch powers that would force production of ventilators and N-95 masks
The assurances from the White House that millions of tests would be conducted on a weekly basis from coast to coast have been undercut by reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which confirmed as recently as last month that no more than 150,000 tests were conducted by affiliated labs and partners per day.
“Now we’re doing 300,000 tests per day. That’s a 100% increase and it will go up substantially,” Trump said during Monday’s press briefing
So far, the federal government has conducted 8.9 million tests, which represents just over 2% of the nation’s population. Trump estimated Monday the U.S. will surpass 10 million total tests conducted by the end of this week.
“In the span of just a few short months we’ve developed a testing capacity unmatched and unrivaled and it’s not even close. It’s a core element of our plan to safely and gradually reopen America. We’re reopening and there’s enthusiasm like I haven’t seen in a long time,” the president said, also calling U.S. testing capacity “virtually unlimited.”
Testing capacity does indeed appear to be unlimited inside the walls of the White House.
Katie Miller, a spokeswoman Vice President Mike Pence, testified positive for Covid-19 last week, as did a valet for Trump. Pence said Friday that both he and the president would start getting tested daily, along with other people working in the White House. The vice president tested negative over the weekend.
The exposure prompted members of the White House’s coronavirus task force to self-isolate out of an abundance of caution, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, as well as CDC Director Robert Redfield and Stephen Hahn, head of the Food and Drug Administration.
Trump said Monday he did not believe the spread of the virus inside the White House indicated any kind of systemic safety breakdown.
“It’s not breaking down. It’s the hidden enemy. Three tested negative and the one who tested positive will be fine,” Trump said. “We have a lot of people who work here. It’s tremendous numbers of people coming in but we want to keep our country running. Most of those people are tested depending on what portion of the Oval Office area they’re coming in. I felt no vulnerability whatsoever.”
The White House has instructed staffers to wear face masks but the president continues to avoid wearing one in public.
When hit with questions on the necessity of wearing the protective gear recommended by his administration’s own CDC, Trump quickly grew irritated and told reporters “believe it or not” wearing a face mask is “not a one-sided issue.”
Protesters have swarmed state capitols and public spaces across the country in the last few weeks, decrying social distancing restrictions as draconian even as some restrictions have been lifted gradually.
Roughly 20,000 new cases of Covid-19 are reported in the U.S. each day, according to the Covid Tracking Project, and 1,000 to 2,000 Americans are dying each day from the respiratory disease caused by the virus. As of Monday, there are more than 1.3 million cases in the U.S. and over 80,000 deaths.
When pressed by a reporter in the Rose Garden on what he suspects the death count may look like this summer, Trump recoiled.
“I don’t want to think about it even. We acted early in banning people from China coming in, other than our citizens, and they were quarantined and tested,” he said.
The president claimed without explanation or basis that just as many people were dying from Covid-19 as those who are dying from drug addiction and suicide. He also suggested that lengthy quarantines are responsible for more deaths.
“People are dying with that too, you look at drug addiction, suicides. People are dying that way too. You can make the case it’s even in greater numbers,” he said, before remarking on how some states have moved more quickly than others to lift restrictions on businesses.
Safety is paramount, Trump said, but he added: “People are dying in the lockdown position too.”
Though the administration initially vowed anyone who wanted a test could get one, on Monday both Trump and Brett Giror with the Health and Human Services Department said the federal government expects to mostly limit testing only to those people exhibiting symptoms.
The White House also said it would review new reports of children in Washington state and New York suffering from a rare inflammatory condition known as Kawasaki disease that doctors believe is linked to Covid-19. Five children have died and 93 other cases have been reported.
“We’re studying it closely. It’s been on the radar for weeks,” Trump said.
Senior administration officials said during a conference call ahead of Monday’s briefing that the White House is urging nursing homes across the U.S. to begin Covid-19 testing at its facilities in the next two weeks.
The officials said it would not be mandated but the president was open to the idea of requiring it.
“We have asked states to put an emphasis on the elderly population the entire time,” an administration official said.
The White House is expected to release details soon on how it plans to allocate $11 billion earmarked for the ramping up of testing capacity in accordance with the CARES Act.
One way states receive that funding is to verify that they are coming up with plans, like ones to protect the elderly. If states can’t do that, the administration official said, then there’s a “good chance they will be ordered to.”