The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The sharp hypocrisy of the White House position on testing

A White House coronavirus briefing on March 20, 2020, displayed a new test kit for covid-19 that can produce results in five minutes. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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There’s a straightforward way in which businesses and other institutions can relax social distancing measures without spurring a surge in new coronavirus infections: frequent and repeated assessments of employee health, including tests for those showing signs of infection. The goal is simple: quickly containing the virus, thus avoiding new surges in cases.

Straightforward, yes, but simple, no. Such a process, scaled to meet the needs of the entire country, would require hundreds of thousands of tests each day. Researchers from Harvard’s Global Health Institute, partnering with NPR, used projections of the spread of the virus to estimate that the United States would need to conduct more than 917,000 tests each day to most effectively detect new outbreaks of the virus — a detection that would then kick off another complicated process of tracing and isolating any contacts with the infected person.

The number of tests needed varies by state, as you might expect. According to the NPR-Harvard analysis, only nine states are currently conducting the number of tests that would be needed to meet the standard the group set for testing. That standard isn’t universal; some researchers expect that the number of daily tests would need to be in the millions, not the hundreds of thousands.

There is at least one employer in the United States that is currently meeting a robust standard of testing aimed at preventing an outbreak: the White House.

We’ve known for some time that the White House was deploying rapid-result tests for the virus, including testing members of the press corps covering the administration. On Wednesday, we learned that this effort extends beyond the White House grounds. During President Trump’s visit to a mask production facility in Arizona this week, he opted not to wear a mask, despite facility policy. A representative for the company he was visiting, Honeywell, explained the reason to The Post’s Greg Sargent.

“Following White House recommended protocol, a small number of individuals directly interfacing with the President on Tuesday were tested for COVID-19 immediately prior to the event, received negative test results, and were permitted to not wear masks during portions of the visit based on that medical screening,” the statement read.

This is a step beyond simply screening employees for symptoms such as coughing or fevers. This is an effort to create a safe, virus-free bubble around Trump and his team.

This is a good idea, of course. Repeated testing aimed at ensuring a safe work environment is the goal we should seek nationally, and not just when Trump is in the vicinity. But it’s also not the goal that the White House thinks should be set for the rest of the country.

Presented with the disconnect between the White House’s testing process aimed at protecting the president and the lack of available testing for employers — something employers themselves told the administration was necessary — White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Wednesday offered an odd response.

“Let’s dismiss a myth about tests right now,” McEnany said. “If we tested every single American in this country at this moment, we’d have to retest them an hour later, and then an hour later after that. Because at any moment, you could theoretically contract this virus. So the notion that everyone needs to be tested is just simply nonsensical.”

No one is saying that every American needs to be tested every hour, of course. This is a straw man, meant to conflate reasonable calls for more testing with a ridiculous and unattainable alternative. Not everyone in the Honeywell factory needed to be tested, either, but enough tests were done that the White House felt comfortable with Trump participating. That’s one advantage of flying in and flying back out — repeated tests aren’t necessary. But repeated tests of the sort McEnany pooh-poohs are the norm at her office.

The administration’s position on testing has mirrored its rhetoric on ventilators. After getting a slow start, it likes to hype how much it is doing, even as it blames others for failures and gaps.

On Wednesday, for example, McEnany compared testing in the United States to testing in South Korea, where the virus has been effectively contained.

“You know, if we want to talk about testing and the volume of testing, the fact that in South Korea there are — we always hear about South Korea and their tests — there are 11 tests per thousand,” she said. “Here in the United States, that’s 17 tests per thousand.”

Sure ... now. This is a bit like bragging about how effectively you've closed the doors on empty barns. South Korea ramped up testing quickly and effectively contained the virus. We didn't. Our testing ramped up more slowly and only now is reaching the point McEnany praises. What's more, her figure is overall. We're not conducting that many tests per day; we've done so since March.

Trump, true to form, offered some insight earlier in the day on Wednesday into why he is reticent to embrace widespread testing.

“The media likes to say we have the most cases, but we do, by far, the most testing,” he said. “If we did very little testing, we wouldn’t have the most cases. So, in a way, by doing all of this testing, we make ourselves look bad.”

This is also true in the same way that a city that never arrests anyone will have a very low number of recorded crimes. It offers a solution if your concern is the metric, but not if your concern is the actual amount of crime that’s occurring. This would not be the first time Trump has indicated that the number of cases is of more concern to him than the affected individuals. In early March, he said he didn’t want to transfer potentially infected passengers off a cruise ship for treatment because he worried it would spike the number of recorded cases in the United States.

At the time, he was worried that the number of confirmed cases in the country would jump to 500 or so. As of this writing, there are more than 1.2 million confirmed cases in the United States.

As Trump downplays his interest in testing, he continues to push for the economy to reopen broadly — in other words, getting businesses to relax social distancing without enough testing to detect and trace new infections. The implications for employees is obvious: Many will have to return to work at risk of losing their jobs and, in many cases, they will lack protection from the infection. (A lengthy document from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detailing measures that should be taken by employers to limit infections was reportedly shelved by the Trump administration.)

If you're an employer, this is a potential problem, raising the possibility of workers seeking to hold their employers to account for becoming ill. Hence the push on Capitol Hill for liability protections for businesses.

“The litigation epidemic has already begun,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday. “As of the end of last week, one report had it that 771 lawsuits had already been filed. This is going to impact our ability to begin to get back to work.”

That’s certainly an interesting choice of words, but an apt one. McConnell and the Trump administration are urging Congress to take steps to prevent the “litigation epidemic” from spreading, implementing the functional equivalent of a vaccine against it. After all, we don’t want to see “body bags of dead businesses and jobs,” as Trump ally Stephen Moore put it in an interview with The Post last week.

This choice between reopening and protecting lives is a false one, of course. Businesses in other countries are reopening with the virus contained and with measures in place to track new infections. The position the United States is in is largely one that is a function of the choices our leaders have made. That includes the choice in one workplace to implement a robust testing policy in defense of one particular employee, President Trump.

But McEnany was right on one point: Even frequent testing isn’t a guarantee that the virus cannot still spread. On Thursday morning, CNN reported that a personal valet working for Trump tested positive. The president was tested shortly thereafter to trace the potential spread of the virus, just as experts recommend.