WASHINGTON — The White House released new guidelines aimed at answering criticism that America's coronavirus testing has been too slow, and President Donald Trump tried to pivot toward a focus on "reopening" the nation.
Still, there were doubts from public health experts that the White House's new testing targets were sufficient.
Monday's developments were meant to fill critical gaps in White House plans to begin easing restrictions, ramping up testing for the virus while shifting the president's focus toward recovery from the economic collapse caused by the outbreak. The administration unveiled a "blueprint" for states to scale up their testing in the coming week — a tacit admission, despite public statements to the contrary, that testing capacity and availability over the past two months have been lacking.
The new testing targets would ensure states had enough COVID-19 tests available to sample at least 2.6% of their populations each month — a figure already met by a majority of states. Areas that have been harder hit by the virus would be able to test at double that rate, or higher, the White House said.
The testing issue has bedeviled the administration for months. Trump told reporters on March 6 during a visit to the CDC in Atlanta that "anybody that wants a test can get a test," but the reality has proved to be vastly different.
The initial COVID-19 test developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was contaminated, and early kits operated only on platforms able to perform a small number of tests per day. While the rate of testing increased as tests developed for higher-capacity platforms, they were still limited by shortages of supplies, from nasal swabs to the reagents used to process the samples.
Administration officials maintained Monday that the limiting factor now is actually the availability of samples from people who have been tested — either because guidelines on who could be tested are too stringent or because there are not enough health workers able to take nasal swab samples from them.
The CDC moved to address one of those concerns Monday, expanding the list of people to be prioritized for virus testing to include those who show no symptoms but are in high-risk settings like nursing homes. And Trump met with leaders of businesses including CVS, Walmart and Kroger, who said they were working to expand access to tests across the country.
"Testing is not going to be a problem at all," Trump said later in the Rose Garden.
However, many of the administration's past pledges and goals on testing have not been met.
Jeremy Konyndyk, a disaster preparedness expert who helped lead the Obama administration response to Ebola, said the administration's testing plans are well short of what is needed.
Researchers at Harvard have estimated the country needs to be testing a minimum of 500,000 people per day, and possibly many more. Konyndyk said the aim should be 2 million to 3 million per day. Trump said the current total, up sharply in recent days, is over 200,000 per day.
Konyndyk said: "Over the past month, we've doubled or if you want to be really generous tripled the testing capacity in this country. We need to take where we are now and expand it tenfold."
The testing blueprint for states provides details missing from the administration's guidelines for them to return to normal operations, released more than a week ago. It includes a focus on surveillance testing as well as "rapid response" programs to isolate those who test positive and identify those with whom they had come in contact. The administration aims to have the market "flooded" with tests for the fall, when COVID-19 is expected to recur alongside the seasonal flu.
Trump and administration medical experts outlined the plan on a call with governors Monday.
Trump has sought to regain his footing after weeks of criticism and detours created in part by his press briefings.
Days after he set off a firestorm by publicly musing that scientists should explore the injection of toxic disinfectants as a potential virus cure, Trump said he found little use for his daily task force briefings, where he has time and again clashed with medical experts and reporters. Trump's aides had been trying to move the president onto more familiar and, they hope, safer, ground: talking up the economy in more tightly controlled settings.
Republican Party polling shows Trump's path to a second term depends on the public's perception of how quickly the economy rebounds from the state-by-state shutdowns meant to slow the spread of the virus.
On Monday, the White House initially announced there would be a Trump briefing, but canceled it as Trump's greatest asset in the reelection campaign — his ability to dominate headlines with freewheeling performances — was increasingly seen as a liability.
But hours later, Trump held court in the Rose Garden. He said he hoped that virus deaths would end up no more than 60,000 to 70,000, slightly revising upward his public estimate of recent days as the U.S. toll neared 56,000 on nearly 1 million cases. Still, he claimed a victory given dire, tenfold-higher predictions if the U.S. hadn't adopted restrictive social distancing measures.
Meanwhile, the CDC was beginning to release more detailed guidelines on reopening schools, restaurants and other establishments. Draft guidelines include a long list of recommendations for organizations as they begin to reopen, such as closing break rooms at offices, spacing desks six feet apart at schools and using disposable plates and menus at restaurants.
Some states have started to ease closure orders, and Trump is expected to spend coming days highlighting his administration's efforts to help businesses and employees.
Still, medical experts warn that the virus will continue to haunt the country until a vaccine is developed. They say the risk of a severe second wave is high if social distancing measures are relaxed too quickly or if testing and contact tracing schemes aren't developed.