The White House’s opposition to such funding efforts underscores the administration’s ongoing attempts to minimize a pandemic that has killed more than 140,000 Americans.
Four months into the coronavirus pandemic, many Americans still face barriers to confirming whether or not they have COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus: Either they can’t get tested in a timely manner, or they face long waits for their results. These problems could get worse as the Trump administration tries to block Senate Republicans from allocating billions of dollars for states to conduct testing and contact tracing.
The administration’s efforts, first reported by the Washington Post, come as the White House and Congress begin negotiating another coronavirus relief bill this week, the urgency of which has grown as new cases and deaths surge across the country.
Amid the spiraling outbreak, many states are experiencing a surge in demand for testing that they’ve been unable to meet. That has led to long wait times for test results, with residents in states like Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia, waiting as much as two weeks or longer to hear whether they have COVID-19.
These delays and the lack of adequate testing are “making people sicker, are making the outbreaks bigger, and are leading to more deaths,” Dr. Ashish Jha with the Harvard Global Health Institute said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press.
It also makes contact tracing “almost useless,” according to Crystal R. Watson, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University. “By the time a person is getting results, they already have symptoms, their contacts may already have symptoms and have gone on to infect others,” Watson told the Post last week.
The last major coronavirus spending bill Congress passed, in April, included $25 billion to increase testing, and the Senate GOP wants to provide another $25 billion to help states to improve their testing and contact tracing programs. But the Post reports that some White House officials want to completely zero out that funding, an escalation of their leave-it-to-the-states strategy. This renewed effort comes even as public health experts, policy experts, and governors of both parties have repeatedly called for a national strategy, citing rising caseloads as a consequence of the Trump administration’s patchwork and inconsistent response.
“Cases and deaths are now both rising again, including in many red states,” Sam Hammond, a policy expert at the right-leaning think tank the Niskanen Center, which has worked with Senate Republicans on a testing bill, told the Post. “Senate Republicans have asked for funding to help states purchase test kits in bulk. As it currently stands, the main bottleneck to a big ramp-up in testing is less technical than the White House’s own intransigence.”
President Trump has long been skeptical of testing, even going so far as to say that he ordered testing to be slowed down, arguing that fewer tests would lead to fewer infections documented.
“Here’s the bad part: When you do testing to that extent you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases,” Trump said during his June campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “So I said to my people, slow the testing down, please.”
That, of course, does not mean the virus wouldn’t continue to spread. It would only make it more difficult for states to try to limit that spread.
House Democrats already passed a bill in May that would provide $75 billion for testing and contact tracing, and to cover treatment costs for COVID-19, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has long refused to bring the bill to the Senate floor. McConnell is now expected to introduce his own legislation this week, which could address testing.
The Trump administration is also trying to block $10 billion in new funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention while also cutting spending for the Pentagon and State Department to fight the pandemic at home and abroad.
The White House’s opposition to such funding efforts underscores the administration’s ongoing attempts to minimize a pandemic that has killed more than 140,000 Americans, infected more than 3.7 million, and led nearly 50 million Americans to file for unemployment benefits. Many White House advisors, including chief of staff Mark Meadows, have urged Trump to avoid drawing attention to the virus, the New York Times reported over the weekend, and Trump has repeatedly sought to downplay the severity of the crisis.
During an interview on Fox News Sunday, journalist Chris Wallace asked Trump about his frequent claims that the virus will “disappear,” “fade away,” and “go away,” even as evidence piles up to the contrary.
“I’ll be right eventually,” Trump responded. “I said it’s going to disappear. I’ll say it again: It’s going to disappear—and I’ll be right.”
On Sunday, the U.S. marked the 41st straight day that the seven-day average for new COVID-19 infections trended upward. Just three days earlier, the country set a new single-day record for cases on Thursday, with 77,255.