Two days later, President Trump offered a very different view of testing, repeatedly suggesting that it’s “overrated” and that doing too much testing can needlessly drive up the infection numbers.
“When you test, you have a case,” Trump said. “When you test, you find something is wrong with people. If we didn’t do any testing, we would have very few cases.”
Left unsaid in Trump’s comments: If you don’t test, you also don’t know who might be spreading the disease — nor might you know how to effectively treat someone to avoid the worst outcomes.
But Trump’s comments Thursday were of a sort. Throughout the coronavirus outbreak — and as criticism of the amount of testing has proliferated — Trump has repeatedly questioned the need for a vast amount of tests and suggested that rising numbers are a liability for him rather than a necessary part of getting a handle on the problem.
Back in March, Trump indicated that he did not want to unload a cruise ship full of coronavirus-exposed people because it would drive up the number of U.S. cases.
“I’d rather have the people stay,” he said, while qualifying that he would let others make the decision. He added: “I would rather, because I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.”
The comments could be read as not wanting to allow those people to infect others, but Trump’s focus on blame for “the numbers” suggested he was also worried about appearances.
Since then, Trump has extended this attitude into his testing commentary, questioning its efficacy and suggesting that it’s being used as a means to cast the federal response in a negative light.
In late March and early April, he downplayed the need to expand testing in areas with few confirmed cases.
“But if you take a look at the states — and many states that I’m talking about, they don’t have a problem, we have some big problems — but it’s confined to certain areas, high-density areas,” Trump said on March 25. “So why would we test the entire nation — 350 [million] people?”
He added April 10 that less hard-hit areas “don’t need testing.”
“No, I don’t want to test 350 million people. I think it’s ridiculous,” he said, before adding of such states: “But they’re very, very capable states, and they’re big distances. A lot of land. A lot of opening. You don’t need testing there, you know, where you have a state with a small number of cases.”
Left unsaid in these comments: The possibility that outbreaks in such areas might go undetected because tests were unavailable.
By early this month, Trump said during an event with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) that doing so much testing “makes us look bad.”
“So the media likes to say we have the most cases, but we do, by far, the most testing,” Trump 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.”
The United States has indeed done the most testing in raw numbers, but it has done far from the most per capita testing — meaning claims of doing “by far, the most testing” are oversold.
Perhaps more important here, though, is positive test rate. As the rate drops, a country can have more confidence that it is getting a handle on the size of the problem and where it’s focused. But while that number is dropping in the United States, it still lags behind many countries. That suggests our testing regime is hardly superior — and that doing more testing isn’t, in fact, overselling the size of the problem relative to other countries.
Over the past week or so, though, Trump has been more direct about his disregard for the importance of testing — culminating in the “overrated” comments Thursday.
“But they do the tests, and it just shows you that the fallacy — it’s what I’ve been saying: Testing is not a perfect art,” Trump said May 7, adding: “But even when you test once a day, somebody could — something happens where they catch something.”
He added the next day of an aide to Vice President Pence testing positive: “She tested very good for a long period of time, and then all of a sudden, today she tested positive. … So she tested positive out of the blue. This is why the whole concept of tests aren’t necessarily great. The tests are perfect, but something can happen between a test — where it’s good, and then something happens, and all of a sudden — she was tested very recently and tested negative. And then today, I guess, for some reason, she tested positive.”
And the same day in a Fox News interview: “And this is why testing isn’t necessary. We have the best testing in the world, but testing’s not necessarily the answer because they were testing them.”
The problem with these comments is that people understandably and very logically can come down with the virus between tests — even as Trump suggests it’s some kind of mystery. The answer wouldn’t seem to be that testing isn’t necessary, but that more testing would be preferable to make sure people who are infected take precautions as soon as possible.
The whole commentary is confusing and in many cases nonsensical. But it seems to betray Trump’s disregard for truly expanding the number of tests — despite Fauci and pretty much every medical expert agreeing that testing is vital to flattening the curve and getting past the outbreak.