Testing Could Unlock A Return To Normal Life, But Obstacles Persist

Apr 28, 2020
Originally published on April 28, 2020 9:20 am

Testing is the key that will unlock normalization for millions of Americans.

It's the doorway between the disaster response mode of the pandemic and confidence about returning to work, school and life. And it's also still apparently weeks or more away from scaling to a level that will make a big difference for most people in most places.

Precisely how far away isn't clear, although President Trump and a pageant of guests attempted on Monday to sell the idea that victory is just around the corner.

The president, public health officials and a coterie of Big Business leaders said at the White House that sometime soon, testing throughput in the country could double or better, although they didn't say exactly when nor assess how much normalcy that might buy for how much of the United States.

The White House did unveil what it called a blueprint for state, local and private sector authorities to get from here to there.

Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged that progress hadn't gone as swiftly as he and other administration heavies promised in an earlier briefing.

But Pence also said the work is being executed now and that there's enough testing capacity today for the small number of states closest to proceeding through the first of the federally prescribed "phases" to get out of disaster mode and back to whatever comes next.

Only time itself, however, may tell whether that's so, or if there are more obstacles in store. One of so many reasons the coronavirus disaster has been so disturbing is that it often seems impossible to get a definitive sense at any one time about exactly what is happening.

Are the cases and deaths undercounted — or overcounted? How meaningful is the flurry of statistics bandied about at news conferences like the one on Monday? All the back and forth about masks, personal protective equipment, ventilators and, now, tests — who can make heads or tails of it?

There almost certainly will be a definitive accounting from official government sources, but not for months or years.

The pandemic response will be an area of focus for medical schools, logisticians, oversight committees and journalists for a long time. And it may only be through that prism, in hindsight, that it becomes possible to assess what to make of the claims by Trump and his presenters.


President Trump arrives for a news conference on the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House Monday.
Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images

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The White House was shelled last week after an unscripted moment at Thursday's briefing in which Trump mused about shining ultraviolet light inside the body or dosing a patient with disinfectant as treatments for coronavirus.

Friday's briefing was terse and the president made no presentations on Saturday or Sunday, as he sometimes does. Meanwhile, news stories appeared in which administration allies lamented the political damage they feared Trump might be doing to himself and Republicans with his freewheeling sessions.

So when no briefing at first was scheduled on Monday and White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told Fox News the administration was assessing its strategy for the sessions going forward, politics-watchers wondered whether the Trump show might have been canceled.

Trump himself delivered a resounding answer: No — he was back for another identical session on Monday with many of the same speakers and talking points.

Even this subplot, however, is already a rerun: The New York Times first ran a story about Trump allies' fears about the briefings on April 9, including the critique that Trump was talking too long. The following day, the president talked for more than two hours.


The briefing in brief:

Here are highlights from Monday's White House coronavirus task force briefing:

  • Companies tout expanding tests: In a series of short statements, the CEOs of Quest Diagnostics, LabCorp and Thermo Fisher Scientific discussed plans to achieve notable gains in their testing capabilities by mid to late May. Representatives from Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Walmart and Kroger also spoke of expanding testing locations to more states, as well as the number of tests at their stores across the country. NPR's Tim Mak points out how the number of testing sites remains small compared to the actual number of stores each retail pharmacy has.

  • Trump addresses Azar's early handling of the virus: President Trump indirectly acknowledged that Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar's initial downplaying of the coronavirus in late January was a mistake. "You have many people in the other party that have said the same thing and with even more confidence," the president said — "so a lot of people didn't get that right." The exchange follows reports about how Azar's initial response to the coronavirus was problematic, including his choice to delay informing Trump about its severity early on. The Washington Post also reported on Monday that warnings about COVID-19 were regularly included in Trump's top secret security briefings.

  • There's a rise in Americans consuming disinfectant. Trump: "I can't imagine why": After suggesting last week that injecting disinfectant products could help treat COVID-19 and then walking the comments back as "sarcasm," a day later Trump rejected reports that Americans were taking his words seriously. Since Trump's statements, there have been reports of increased calls regarding wrongful ingestion of such products. When asked if he would take any responsibility for the events, the president said, "I can't imagine that."

  • Economic tailspin: Trump acknowledged estimates on Monday that the U.S. gross domestic product could take a hit in the second quarter unlike any seen since the Great Depression. But the president sought to emphasize what he has called the pent-up demand to revive the economy later this year. Just under 30 million Americans are out of work, and the virus mitigation countermeasures, including social distancing, have pummeled restaurants, brick-and-mortar retailers, travel, energy and much of the rest of the economy. 

  • Grading their own tests: Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn said Friday that antibody tests unauthorized by the FDA can be distributed if the manufacturer self-validates them. "They have to tell us that they validated their tests," Hahn said, adding that the tests are labeled as unauthorized in the packaging. As of Friday, the FDA has authorized four tests — but Hahn's remarks followed reports that problematic tests currently unapproved by the FDA are already being sold. 


Latest confirmed U.S. case and death totals

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Janis Varela serves customers at Puckett's Grocery & Restaurant on Monday in Franklin, Tenn.
Mark Humphrey / AP

Other key coronavirus stories from NPR:

  • Two top former federal health officials are calling for Congress to authorize $46 billion for tracing and isolating in a future relief bill — which they call essential to preventing an echo spike in infections, reports NPR's Franco Ordoñez
  • The IRS has told some 10,000 employees to prepare to return to work as early as Monday and, as necessary, supply their own face masks, reports NPR's Brian Naylor.
  • Restaurants in Tennessee are back open to dine-in customers — but the Volunteer State also has recorded its single biggest day's increase in infections, reports NPR's Brakkton Booker.
  • The Navy's coronavirus woes are getting worse: Some 50 crew members aboard the destroyer USS Kidd are infected and the service is managing some 955 active cases aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, Booker reports.
  • NPR Exclusive: As part of an ongoing investigation of Amazon's treatment of workers in a New York warehouse, the New York Attorney General's Office characterized the company's protection of employees during the COVID-19 crisis as "inadequate," Alina Selyukh reports.
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