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From ‘anybody’ can get tested to the states need to test: How Trump has shifted his rhetoric on coronavirus testing

Over the past two months, President Trump has shifted his public assurances about coronavirus testing no fewer than six times. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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This post has been updated.

Initially, President Trump said, anyone who wanted a test could get a test.

Then the testing shortages were due to the previous administration and state-level issues.

Then the United States had tested more than any country.

Except widespread testing was not needed and would not happen.

Over the past 41 days, Trump and his administration have repeatedly shifted their public assurances about coronavirus testing as U.S. testing continues to lag behind that of other countries. And on Thursday, the administration issued guidelines for how states could reopen their economies in phases, even without widespread testing and tracing.

Public health experts have said the lack of widespread testing and tracing could lead to second or third waves of the coronavirus, and economists have said reopening the economy too soon could hurt economic growth more in the long term than reduced growth in the short term due to stay-at-home orders.

In March, Trump repeatedly touted the availability of tests even as completed tests lagged far behind reported testing availability, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project.

“Anybody that wants a test can get a test,” Trump said March 6.

At the time, the United States had completed 2,252 tests.

“[There will be] 1.4 million tests on board next week and 5 million within a month,” Trump said on March 13. “I doubt we’ll need anywhere near that.”

At the time the United States had completed 16,665 tests.

By March 18, Trump had pivoted to blaming the Obama administration.

“We inherited a very obsolete system,” Trump falsely said at the time, ignoring that his administration designed the tests, and his Food and Drug Administration waited nearly a month to loosen regulations to allow hospital labs to develop their own coronavirus tests.

One week later, Trump had shifted to touting completed tests.

“We now are doing more testing than anybody, by far,” he said on March 25, comparing U.S. testing to that of South Korea. At the time, the United States had tested far less per capita than had South Korea.

On April 6, Trump had put the testing onus on states.

“States can do their own testing,” Trump said when asked about testing delays. “ … We’re the federal government. We’re not supposed to stand on street corners doing testing.”

By April 10, Trump was downplaying the need for widespread testing.

“We’re going to do testing, but you don’t need to test 325 to 350 million people, because No. 1, it’s unnecessary,” Trump said at the time. “Vast numbers — vast areas of our country don’t need this.”

On Saturday, Trump coronavirus task force member Adm. Brett P. Giroir said widespread testing “is physically impossible, and it’s a poor strategy, because testing negative one day doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be positive the next day.” On Tuesday, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the United States did not yet have adequate testing and tracing in place to reopen the economy.

Over the past two weeks, the United States has completed roughly 120,000 to 160,000 tests per day, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Experts have estimated the United States needs to complete 1 million tests per day to reach per capita testing similar to that of South Korea and 22 million tests per day to test the entire U.S. population. Trump’s former FDA administrator Scott Gottlieb has said the United States needs to test roughly 540,000 people per day to reopen the economy.

But even if the United States scales up testing, experts also say widespread contact tracing is needed to contain the virus and prevent future flare-ups.

The United States has roughly 600 officials conducting contact tracing, said Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. China had 9,000 officials doing contact tracing in Wuhan alone, a city of 11 million people.

By Thursday, Trump had shifted back to touting U.S. testing capacity, 41 days after saying any American who wanted a test could get a test.

“We have tremendous testing capacity,” Trump said. “And to think that a month and a half ago, we had virtually nothing.”