On a visit to the Atlanta headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Friday, President Donald Trump spoke with the press. Alongside CDC Director Robert Redfield and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Trump fielded questions about the federal response to Covid-19, the disease that has so far infected more than 100,000 people around the world and killed more than 3,500including at least 19 in the United States.
As a reporter, in general Im not supposed to say something like this, but: The presidents statements to the press were terrifying. That press availability was a repudiation of good science and good crisis management from inside one of the worlds most respected scientific institutions. It was full of Dear Leader-ish compliments, non-sequitorial defenses of unrelated matters, attacks on an American governor, andmost importantlymisinformation about the virus and the US response. Thats particularly painful coming from inside the CDC, a longtime powerhouse in global public health now reduced to being a backdrop for grubby politics. During a public health crisis, clear and true information from leaders is the only way to avoid dangerous panic. Yet here we are.
Most of the deaths from Covid-19 in the US so far have been in Washington state, concentrated in a care facility for the elderly in Seattle. At the CDC, the president said of Washingtons governor Jay Inslee (who has declared a State of Emergency), That governor is a snake Let me just tell you, we have a lot of problems with the governor and the governor of Washington. Thats where you have many of your problems, OK? That animosity doesnt seem to be related to Inslees handling of the outbreak. The president may have been reacting to criticism from Inslee on Twitter about the way the outbreak has been handled, and until last summer Inslee was a candidate for the Democratic nomination to run against Trump in the November presidential election.
Azar started talking about the tests health care workers use to determine if someone is infected with the new coronavirus. The lack of those kits has meant a dangerous lack of epidemiological information about the spread and severity of the disease in the US, exacerbated by opacity on the part of the government. Azar tried to say that more tests were on the way, pending quality control.
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Then Trump cut Azar off. But I think, importantly, anybody, right now and yesterday, that needs a test gets a test. Theyre there, they have the tests, and the tests are beautiful. Anybody that needs a test gets a test, Trump said.
This is untrue. Vice President Pence told reporters Thursday that the US didnt have enough test kits to meet demand. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his state would develop its own coronavirus tests because the federal government version wasnt available in enough quantity. In California, the first US resident to contract Covid-19 through community contact didnt get tested for four days after entering the hospital, even though doctors asked for the test, because the criteria for testing were so strict and only CDC had test kits. The number of tests available, and the number actually completed, has varied depending on which government official was speaking. Federal officials have said they intended to distribute anywhere from thousands to millions of kits, and that as of Friday that 5,861 tests have been conducted. But thats actually the number of samples tested, and some tests require more than one sampleso that number doesnt reflect the actual total number of individual people tested. A recent tally in The Atlantic confirmed only 1,895 people had been tested. For comparison, South Korea is testing 10,000 people every day. This lack of data is criticalpublic health workers need to know how fast an outbreak is spreading, and where, if theyre going to be able to respond to it. An example: People are still arguing over how potentially deadly the virus SARS-CoV-2 because they dont know the baseline number of people infected in the US, because too few people are getting tested. Health workers are flying blind.