May 12, 2020

Is the U.S. testing enough people for coronavirus?

Is the U.S. testing enough people for coronavirus?

The White House says we are "leading the world."

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Today’s read: 7 minutes.

How America’s testing is really doing, a question about coronavirus in the White House and a story about your stimulus check.

President Trump addresses a group of reporters in the Rose Garden, with members of his team sitting in the front row and wearing masks. Screenshot: YouTube/TheWhiteHouse

What D.C. is talking about.

Testing. Yesterday, President Trump held a press conference at the Rose Garden that was largely about the United States’ testing ability. “America leads the world in testing,” Trump said. “If somebody wants to be tested right now, they’ll be tested.” The president added that we are testing more people per capita “than South Korea, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Sweden, Finland and many other countries,” and said “we have met the moment and we have prevailed” on increasing access to testing. A month ago, the United States was testing 150,000 people a day. Now we are testing 300,000 people per day. At the end of April, President Trump was asked by a reporter if we would ever get to 5 million tests a day. He said that was coming “very soon,” then later backtracked and called the question a “media trap.” The United States has now tested more total citizens than any other country in the world.

What the right is saying.

For weeks, the media and the left have hammered Trump about testing. Now the United States is doing more tests than any country on earth and they disingenuously try to knock it down. One of the left’s favorite talking points has been the success of South Korea’s testing program, and yesterday the president announced we are testing more people per capita than South Korea. 395,000 tests were completed on Monday alone. Trump also committed $11 billion in federal money from the latest relief bill to boost testing efforts, money that will be allocated based on states’ size and how the outbreak has impacted them. The White House also set out a specific goal: for every state to be testing at least 2% of its population — and far more than that in states where serious outbreaks have occurred. Before the presser, the White House announced a new policy recommendation for nursing home residents and staff — saying they should all be tested in the next two weeks. Fox News reported that “Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force coordinator, told governors to focus over the next two weeks on testing all 1 million nursing home residents.” A New York Times analysis recently found that nursing homes account for one-third of all deaths in the United States. At the same time, some Republican governors have criticized the disorganized nature of how testing has happened nationally — and even Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said today that our testing has been “impressive, but not nearly enough.”

What the left is saying.

The President conveniently leaves out some notable comparisons. The New York Times reported that “Germany, Russia, Spain, Canada, Switzerland and at least 20 others” are testing more people per capita than we are. Even if we test more total people than any country on earth, we’re still not testing enough. And the president’s claim that anyone can get a test who wants one is completely untrue. Yes, people who are sick and presenting symptoms are now generally able to access a test — but many Americans want to get tested for the virus or antibodies to return to normal life and they don’t have easily accessible tests. Before the press conference, Joe Biden hit Trump in a Washington Post op-ed, saying: “If Trump and his team understand how critical testing is to their safety — and they seem to, given their own behavior — why are they insisting that it’s unnecessary for the American people?” His writing referred to the fact Trump and White House staff are being tested every day. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also expressed a need for more testing, saying New York has done more testing than any other state but will need more resources to reopen.

My take.

I do think there have been some disingenuous takes from people on the left in the last 24 hours. For months, we’ve been comparing the United States to other countries’ testing capabilities. Now, as the U.S. gains ground on those countries, there are people — including reporters — criticizing Trump for comparing us to other countries as if it were a competition. That’s not a fair take. But I do think it’s fair to criticize Trump’s framing yesterday. It was a classic case of him overplaying his hand. The news that we are testing 300,000 people a day is good news. So is the fact that we are testing more people than any other country and the fact that we are now climbing the ranks of per capita testing. It’s also great that the president is now allocating $11 billion to states.

But a lot of this stuff is coming a little late. As I wrote yesterday, in an ideal world, the testing for the coronavirus would have been ramped up in February and out the door in March. Harvard researchers have said we’ll need at least 500,000 tests a day to reopen the economy and contain the virus, and their preferred number was more like 900,000 tests a day by May 15th. We’re at 300,000 tests per day and states are already reopening.

In other countries, testing has been a central focus of containing and beating the virus spread. But here in the U.S., the virus is already out. So it’s going to be about giving people the confidence to go to work, restaurants or social events knowing that their colleagues and the people around them have been tested for the coronavirus. It will help mitigate outbreaks, but in many ways, that ship has already sailed. Until that security or confidence comes, it’s going to be hard to get people out of their houses — and impossible to slow the spread. Trump is right that our testing capabilities are improving and he’s right that we are testing more people than any other country — but our per capita testing lags countries like Australia or Canada and we’re still well short of where researchers say we need to be for a safe reopening.

Quick hits

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading epidemiologist in the U.S., along with other experts leading the COVID-19 response, is testifying before Congress. Fauci said we are now funding several vaccine pushes that could be complete by the late fall or early winter, but cautioned that the trials may not yield ideal results. He also testified that “many of us [health officials] feel that the number of deaths are likely higher” than 80,000, the official count. “It is almost certainly higher.”

The Supreme Court is hearing arguments on Trump’s tax records. The case, which could have a ruling in June, is a momentous moment for the court. It could either lead to Trump’s financial records being unsealed before the November 2020 election or to presidents being able to conceal their financial records into the future.

Elon Musk said he will defy a California order and re-open his Tesla plant. Musk has been pushing California authorities to allow California companies to resume production since they closed up shop on March 23rd, and now he’s going rogue. Musk dared the local Sheriff to arrest him on Monday. It’s unclear what actions California authorities plan to take.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says three upstate regions will begin reopening this week. The news is a major step forward in a state that has been hit harder by COVID-19 than any other in the country. While Cuomo’s approval ratings have skyrocketed during the pandemic, his office’s response to the virus is coming under increasing scrutiny as the state’s death toll continues to climb.

Your questions, answered.

Reminder: reader questions is one of my favorite parts of Tangle. If you have something you want to see in the newsletter, simply reply to this email and write in. I’ll try to get to it as soon as I can.

Q: Given the current situation of people in the White House testing positive for COVID-19, how does this change things? Can Trump/Pence continue to be seen not wearing masks and following their own guidelines or those from the CDC? And in a darker vein, now that it seems more possible than ever, what would happen if Trump or Pence were to test positive? Would the public know or would it be kept confidential? And even darker — given Trump's age and health, what would happen if he were to pass because of the virus?

— Sean, New York, NY

Tangle: I was going to wait to answer this question, but then it became really newsworthy yesterday. Not long after you wrote in, the White House announced a new policy that all staff had to wear masks while inside the West Wing. The announcement came after two officials tested positive in the White House — the Vice President’s press secretary and a valet for President Trump.

The new directive set up a pretty interesting situation yesterday, during the coronavirus briefing, where everyone in attendance except President Trump and Admiral Brett Giroir was wearing a mask at the Rose Garden. The White House also had every reporter in attendance wearing a mask (they had already been taking people’s temperatures). It has created a really interesting dynamic where the White House is, for the first time, actually modeling the guidance they have been giving Americans across the country.

It’s also raised all sorts of interesting comments and questions about the White House’s handling of COVID-19. Trump has repeatedly downplayed wearing a mask and Pence infamously toured the Mayo Clinic without one (he later apologized). Trump has been reluctant to put on a mask and still wasn’t wearing one yesterday. “I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know—somehow, I don’t see it for myself. I just don’t,” he said in April. He’s also said that since he is tested every day he does not think it’s necessary to wear a mask. Some compared the situation to Fox News, which has told its employees they won’t be back to work until at least June 15th while its news anchors have simultaneously been encouraging Americans to demand they go back to work. It reminds me a lot of the old adage “do as I say, not as I do.”

I think it’s a good thing the mask-wearing is happening in the White House now. In fact, that was part of my criticism of Trump in yesterday’s reader question: I think the lowest hanging fruit of what he could have done better was simply to model how to act for Americans. Wearing a face covering in public from the time the CDC started recommending them probably would have encouraged more people to do the same — but he hasn’t. This update to the White House protocol is the next best thing.

What would happen if one of them got it? I think we’d know almost immediately. Trump and Pence’s offices leak constantly, and when Trump was first tested for COVID-19 we knew within a day. We’d also know because his actions would undoubtedly change. There are just far too many people who are watching him, approaching him, far too many people present when the tests happen, and far too many people who would have to change their actions or react if he were to get sick. At some point, the news would get to someone who would leak. President Trump himself is also known to be freewheeling and leak to the press himself, or talk off the record, and I wouldn't be surprised if he told the public to get ahead of the narrative.

As for going down the rabbit hole, it seems you and President Trump — who responded to a tweet about the scenario you just raised — are actually thinking along the same lines:

Trump (and Solomon) are right: if Pence and Trump were to get sick, Nancy Pelosi is next in line. I actually looked into this question of an incapacitated president and found that there are a few constitutional stipulations that tell us what happens. A president can voluntarily transfer his authority to a vice president — a thing that’s happened on three occasions. President Reagan had colon cancer surgery and was under anesthesia, so he transferred his power to Vice President George H. W. Bush until reclaiming it later in the day. George W. Bush did a similar thing, transferring his power to Dick Cheney when he went under for a colonoscopy in 2002 and again in 2007 (lots of colon stuff going on here). The clause that transfers power unwillingly, in the case that a president is incapacitated or unable to issue the declaration to transfer the power themselves, has never been used. But I imagine if Pence or Trump were getting seriously ill they would transfer the power before it came to that. And yes, Pelosi would be third in line behind Vice President Pence to take over power as a U.S. president.

A story that matters.

If you want to get your direct deposit stimulus check from the IRS, there is now a deadline to receive it via direct deposit. Yesterday, the IRS announced the deadline was noon on Wednesday for people to go to the IRS website and enter their direct deposit information if they want to receive the $1,200 stimulus check straight to their bank account. If you miss the deadline, and haven’t gotten the check yet, you will receive a paper copy. “The IRS said automatic payments will be sent soon to those receiving Social Security retirement, disability benefits, Railroad Retirement benefits, Veterans Affairs benefits or Supplemental Security Income. No specific timetable was given Friday,” USA Today reported. About 130 million people have now received payments worth more than $200 billion, but more than 20 million payments are yet to go out. You can read the story here and you can fill out your direct deposit information on the IRS website here.


  • 51%. The percentage of Americans who said they were very/somewhat likely to use a cell-phone based contract tracing system established by the CDC or health officials.
  • 33%. The percentage of Americans who said they were very/somewhat likely to use a cell-phone based contract tracing system established by a major tech company.
  • 31%. The percentage of Americans who said they were very/somewhat likely to use a cell-phone based contract tracing system established by the federal government.
  • 26%. The percentage of Ohio Democrats who would feel comfortable going to a restaurant with some spacing precautions
  • 70%. The percentage of Ohio Republicans who would feel comfortable going to a restaurant with some spacing precautions
  • 3%. Donald Trump’s lead over Joe Biden in Ohio, according to new polling.
  • 6%. Donald Trump’s lead over Joe Biden in Texas, according to new polling.

Have a nice day.

Yesterday, the United States approved the largest solar project in American history. The Interior Department gave the final approval for a $1 billion installation in Nevada that will power some 260,000 households, according to The Wall Street Journal. The project has financial backing from Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., along with a few other private-equity firms. Major business consumers are calling for more solar and wind power across the U.S. both to combat climate change and reduce the cost of utility bills — this project is a sign that the ball is rolling. Click.

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