Though the president continues to brag about and take credit for U.S. testing, in recent days, he has expressed skepticism about the need for so much of it. On Tuesday, he did both in the same breath.
Trump said that while the U.S. has “the greatest testing in the world” and “the most testing in the world,” he didn’t think “you need that kind of testing or that much testing.” The next day, Trump took his remarks a step further, telling reporters at the White House, “In a way, by doing all of this testing, we make ourselves look bad.”
While Birx didn’t answer directly when asked Thursday if testing looks bad, she wholeheartedly endorsed the need for it.
“I’ve been very encouraged about two parts of the testing,” Birx said during a CNN town hall. “One, the dramatic increase in the number of tests we’re doing per week. We hope this week to get close or over 8 million, we’re going up."
So far, about 2.5 percent of all Americans have been tested, Birx said, adding that the number is increasing by half a percent every week. Testing and contact tracing, she said, has proven to be critical to helping local leaders identify cases and contain the spread of the virus within their borders.
Birx also stressed the importance of “being proactive about testing,” namely monitoring places such as prisons, long-term-care facilities and inner city communities, and not just focusing on people showing symptoms.
“I really want to emphasize over and over again, that this asymptomatic spread is key,” she said. “We have to be able to find it.”
Her response marked another example of conflict between the top scientists and public health experts within the Trump administration and the president.
In recent months, Trump repeatedly touted the use of anti-malarial drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine as potential game-changing coronavirus treatments, despite science and the scientists saying the opposite.
Meanwhile, Trump and some of his allies also keep suggesting the coronavirus was cooked up in a lab in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak originated. The nation’s top infectious diseases expert, Anthony S. Fauci, among others, have said there’s no scientific proof of that and that there’s evidence to the contrary.
Cooper, who was joined by CNN’s chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, opened Thursday’s interview with Birx by asking her about why guidelines on reopening the country from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have not yet been released, despite being in the works for weeks.
Earlier in the day, the Associated Press and CNN reported that the White House had shelved the recommendations — a move that would further limit the CDC’s public role during a pivotal moment in the country’s coronavirus response as more than half the states are now reopening or in the process of lifting restrictions.
In response to Cooper, Birx stressed that administration officials are “in deep partnership” with the CDC on a number of different guidelines, including those related to reopening the country.
“No one has stopped those guidelines. We’re still in editing,” Birx said with a smile. “I just got my edits back from the CDC late yesterday. I’m working on them as soon as I get off of this discussion. We are in constant work with the CDC and really value their partnership.”
Birx later applauded the CDC for “how proactive they have been in working with the White House and really ensuring that the best science is put forward” in official recommendations.
“Is that what guides the edits, science?” Cooper pressed. “Because it seems like, from some of the comments coming out about these guidelines, that it’s also political beliefs, religious beliefs. … Is it scientists who are making the edits?”
“I like to believe that I’m a scientist and I’ve been working with the CDC on the edits,” Birx responded. She noted that the changes are more about simplifying the guidelines so that they can be understood by both the public and health officials.
Then, the conversation turned to another delicate subject: the practice of wearing masks at the White House, in light of news that a valet, whose job potentially puts him in close daily contact with Trump, had tested positive for the novel virus.
Trump has made it clear that he is not a fan of wearing a mask himself and was spotted this week barefaced during a tour of a mask-making facility in Phoenix. Similarly, Vice President Pence recently weathered criticism for not using a face covering while visiting the renowned Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
“All of us are very nervous every day. None of us want to be the one to ever bring coronavirus into the White House,” Birx said. “Most of us don’t do anything but go to work and come home. If we go out at all, even to take a walk, I can assure you we do wear masks in public.”
When Gupta asked Birx if she would tell people to start wearing masks around Trump given how easily transmittable the virus is, the doctor artfully dodged the question.
“Certainly there are people who wear masks on the White House complex,” she said, before shifting to discuss the effort being made by officials to maintain social distancing in their daily interactions.
“I’m very scrupulous and I know all of the meetings we have are very much focused on social distancing,” she continued. “We all are very concerned about protecting others as well as ensuring that we don’t become positive ourselves.”