White House: Much of US Ready to Ease Economy Open

The Trump administration says there are enough coronavirus tests to begin reopening the shuttered U.S. economy and let people in some states begin living their lives again.

A graphic depicting the location of high and low throughput machines for coronavirus testing shared with governors by the White House coronavirus task force briefing during a call held early Monday.

WASHINGTON (CN) — With almost a million confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States and 41,000 Americans dead, the White House Covid-19 task force said Monday that America is ready to enter the first phase of easing social distancing guidelines thanks to what it says is sufficient testing capacity.

From the dais inside the James Brady briefing room at the White House, Vice President Mike Pence and assistant secretary for Health and Human Services Brett Giroir said the U.S. was “ready right now” to enter phase one of the administration’s return-to-work guidelines.

So convinced of this, Giroir noted the administration is even ready to begin ramping up capabilities for phase two.

As of Monday, Republican governors in South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia announced they would begin easing restrictions for businesses and suggesting to them they operate at fractional capacity.

Dr. Deborah Birx, immunologist and task force coordinator, emphasized at Monday’s briefing that during a phone call with governors held earlier in the day, the Trump administration underscored the need for states to follow the guidelines and only reopen businesses if they have seen 14 days of infections trending downward.

In places like Boston or Chicago however, cases numbers are still spiking. Dr. Birx warned these densely populated regions must be particularly careful with social distancing and stay the course as more testing comes online there.

Giroir initially estimated that by this point, the U.S. would have 23 million tests conducted but as of Monday only 4 million Americans have been tested. The Covid Tracking Project reports the U.S. is now up to 150,000 tests per day.

Giroir chalked the shift in his estimate up to an “end-to-end” issue on the manufacturing of swabs and a widespread under-utilization of testing equipment — a point President Trump took several opportunities to drive home Monday.

Much of rapid through-put equipment has only been made more broadly available to public health labs across the United States recently.

Critiques of the federal government’s slow response to testing and its struggles with producing ventilators in the face of a shortage at the pandemic’s outset were a sore point for Trump, who railed Monday against reports criticizing or even merely asserting the dearth of materials. 

In particular, Maryland’s Republican Governor Larry Hogan came under fire during the briefing. Hogan secured a half million tests from South Korea on Monday thanks to a deal struck with the assistance of his wife, the South Korean-born Yumi Hogan.

The Maryland first lady, who became a U.S. citizen in 1994, relied on her and her husband’s longstanding friendship with South Korean Ambassador to the U.S. Lee Soo Hyuk to finalize the deal. Dubbing the project “Operation Enduring Friendship,” a plane packed with tests arrived in Baltimore on Monday.

Hogan has repeatedly said the administration’s insistence that testing is widely and readily available has been less than straightforward at best. Trump bashed Hogan, intimating that the governor didn’t know what was available to him in his own state.

“The governor of Maryland could have called Vice President Pence and saved a lot of money. I don’t think he needed to go to South Korea. He needed to get a little knowledge, that would have been helpful,” Trump said.

A graphic depicting the location of high and low throughput machines for coronavirus testing shared with governors by the White House coronavirus taskforce briefing during a call held early Monday.

The president also repeated “We’ll get him on testing” at least twice Monday, a refrain referring to his take on the media’s reporting of his administration’s response to the pandemic.

“It was all ventilators. We are now the king of ventilators. Then they said, we will get him on testing. Now we did that. it used to be ventilators, ventilators, ventilators. Now it’s testing, testing, testing,” Trump lamented.

Pence, on the other hand, told reporters he did not blame Hogan for doing what he felt was necessary to respond rapidly in his state.

“I wouldn’t begrudge him or his officials for ordering tests, but the capacity for all the different labs across Maryland were part of what we communicated today,” Pence said, noting that the National Institute of Health, located in Maryland, and several Department of Defense facilities would soon be open to assist Governor Hogan with greater testing. 

The next piece of the puzzle will be contact tracing.

Teams of coronavirus contact tracers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will soon be deployed to states where they will work with regional officers to trace the spread in vulnerable populations, specifically at nursing homes and in urban areas.

This, Birx confirmed, helps determine what asymptomatic spread truly looks like. The early hypothesis held by Birx and others — that the virus is more often asymptomatic in the young and more deadly for the old — is still the one held today.

While more testing could hopefully clear this up, Birx noted the tests are not “100% sensitive or specific.”

“If you have 1% of population infected and you have a test that is only 99% specific, that means when you find a positive, 50% of the time it will be a real positive and 50% of the time, it won’t be. That’s why we’re really asking people to test among heath care workers who may have had the greatest exposure. Then we can go out into broader communities,” she said.

Antibody testing for 250,000 health care professionals will be underway in Arizona soon. In California, high-capacity testing hubs are coming online with the help of the University of California, San Diego, Birx noted.

In Florida, 275,000 tests have been conducted and Birx said after Monday’s call with governors, she was happy to learn that the Florida National Guard will be used to test residents at nursing home or long-term care facilities.

Brad Smith, the deputy administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said Monday that the federal government has secured various contracts to bring the production of swabs online. Other items necessary for tests, like the tubes used for specimen collection are also seeing capacity ramped up.

Smith said at the Oakridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where injection molds perfect for the tubes are readily available, officials predict 40 million tubes coming online in the next few weeks. Lancets, for finger pricks necessary for serological testing, are also beefing up.

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