“I’m on the optimistic end of how quickly we can scale testing up,” said Romer, who won the 2018 Nobel Prize for economics. “I do think there’s a way most people could feel safe returning to what feels like normal life this summer if we do this wide-scale testing.”
So far, the nation has tested about 5 million people — or less than 2 percent of the population. Last week, Congress approved an additional $25 billion for testing as part of the latest funding bill, which Romer calls a good start but not enough.
Restarting the U.S. economy isn’t just about government officials clearing certain businesses to reopen. People have to feel safe enough to venture out. Romer says that will happen only when nearly everyone in the country is getting tested on a regular basis and people who are sick are being quarantined.
“It’s totally in our control to fix this,” Romer said in a phone interview. “We should be spending $100 billion on the testing. We should just get it going. It’s just not that hard."
He advises starting with screening all health-care and front-line workers in the next month and then scaling up the testing to the rest of the nation this summer by using university labs to process tests.
Romer says massive testing is the only viable option for the nation. Otherwise, the economy will limp along, leaving millions of people unemployed and forcing small businesses to shut forever. It could take years to recover from that kind of pain. On the flip side, reopening much of the nation too soon could cause deaths to skyrocket again.
Top White House officials voiced support for more testing over the weekend. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Fox News Sunday that the Trump administration would “balance” reopening the economy with “more testing" to “monitor this very, very carefully.”
Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus task force coordinator, said Sunday that more testing would be needed and that “social distancing will be with us through the summer."
As Congress and the White House debate another round of economic relief, it’s unclear how much more money will be allocated for testing. Evidence from China and Germany, which have begun to reopen much of their economies, shows that people remain reluctant to go out and spend again. Subways in China remain half full, big public spaces such as casinos remain nearly empty and economic activity is still way off from normal.
Although some have balked at the cost of testing every American, Romer points out that the United States is losing at least $500 billion a month from the Great Lockdown. His estimate is more modest than some other economists such as St. Louis Federal Reserve President Jim Bullard, who says the nation is losing $25 billion a day right now. Bullard has also endorsed universal testing as the only way to fix the nation’s health — and economic — problems.
“Every month of delay makes the recovery slower — and take longer," Romer said.
Romer won the Nobel Prize for modeling the U.S. and global economies. A former chief economist at the World Bank, he has built a career thinking through big international problems and what to do about them. But the coronavirus fight is also personal for him. He has a daughter who is an intensive care physician in Philadelphia.