The Covid-19 Testing Fiasco

Photograph Source: The White House from Washington, DC – Public Domain

From the start, testing for Covid-19 in the U.S. has been abysmal. Experts agree that without adequate testing, the disease cannot be stopped. Poor testing means no idea how many are infected or how to trace and quarantine their contacts or how to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. There has been speculation that the Trump administration’s puzzling reluctance to test derives from its wish to fudge the numbers of the sick and dying. Well, that reluctance most certainly made the U.S. the plague’s epicenter. We have more Covid-19 infections than any other country. And our dead are piling up fast.

Trump admitted he wasn’t keen on tests, because they “make us look bad.” So he has done the opposite; the results speak for themselves. Meanwhile, undeterred by the Covid-19 carnage, in early May, five Republican governors – of Wyoming, Nebraska, Arkansas, Iowa and Missouri – boasted in a Washington Post editorial how their states stayed open during the pandemic. There is a word for them: Know-Nothings.

The original rollout of tests by the CDC flopped. The tests were inaccurate, probably tainted. Why the CDC didn’t quickly switch to another test remains a mystery. One cannot rule out institutional arrogance and hubris. By April’s end, the U.S. had performed roughly four million tests. Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted that number would double in May and that hopefully anyone who needed a test could get one by early June. Adm. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in charge of testing, agreed. But Fauci also said we need three million tests per week. A Harvard model argues 20 million tests per day are necessary to reopen the economy. The competence and expertise required to achieve that many tests are simply inconceivable for this administration.

Scattershot efforts continue. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that pharmacies in his state would test for Covid-19, while nationally CVS and Walgreens say their stores will offer more tests. On April 29, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti reported that anyone in his city could get a test. This is hopeful news, but what about people who live in the L.A. suburbs? Can they get tested? Maybe, maybe not. That is a flaw in this local patchwork approach to testing. It’s an argument for strong national leadership. But Trump has not rolled out a comprehensive national testing plan and implemented it, despite his braggadocio about how great American testing is. On testing, he has been MIA.

South Korea, Germany, China beat this virus’ first wave by instituting robust testing early. In the U.S., unfortunately, that ship has sailed. Testing has been limited and late. And the U.S. government’s testing failures are a threat not just to its own citizens but to the world. “It doesn’t matter that my country is stabilizing and coming to grips with this,” said South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyong-wha some weeks ago. “The world must overcome this together.” The South Korean stellar success at beating this pestilence is due to its single-minded focus on testing and aggressive contact tracing. South Korea has one of the world’s lowest Covid-19 death rates. Indeed, it managed to hold elections April 15, in which 29 million Koreans voted. Two weeks later, none were infected and the country reported no new local cases for the first time since the outbreak started. As Senator Tim Kaine recently noted, the U.S. has “45 times the rate of South Korea,” of pandemic deaths.

Germany has also excelled at testing and has the low Covid-19 fatality rate to prove it. Though Germany’s infection rate roughly equals that of the UK, France, Spain or Italy, it has only had about one quarter the deaths. Already in early April, Germany processed approximately 116,655 swab tests per day. The German government’s speedy, competent response saved lives, while the slow, bumbling American approach killed people. In Germany, roughly 6000 people have died, a low number thanks to widespread testing. By contrast, over 81,000 Americans have been killed.

Despite inadequate testing, in May, Florida, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and other states started opening up. Dan Friedman of Mother Jones reported that despite promoting easing social distancing, the Trump administration was fully aware this would cause massive Covid-19 death. So the Trump administration knows very well its policies kill. Trump’s approach – first deny the pestilence exists, then delay responding, prevent the CDC from publishing certain statistics, fire officials who try to follow science and data, do nothing, ignore the corpses and hope Americans are too dumb to figure out what’s going on – is one of the biggest failures in American presidential history. It seems predicated on Trump’s mistaken notion that he can bully a virus. But the virus doesn’t care what he does. It will go on killing. His insults won’t stop it. His bragging won’t slow it. His lies won’t banish it. His errors are catastrophic. Friedman called them “large scale negligent homicide.”

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.