Those tests, produced by Abbott Laboratories, promise to yield results in a matter of minutes without the use of a machine to process samples. Such tests could be a significant advance in the effort to contain the coronavirus, allowing for the quick identification of new infections and therefore allowing those with infections to quickly isolate from other people. While Trump presented this as an evolution of the country’s massive testing effort, it does prompt an obvious question: Why is the United States so far behind countries such as South Korea, which had broadly available quick turnaround testing in March?
One could also ask why the administration was again announcing the rollout of something it announced in late August, but that’s another issue. To hear Vice President Pence tell it, the deployment of the tests — which will need to be evaluated more fully once implemented, given the administration’s overall spotty track record with such promises — was a credit to his boss above all else.
“What’s announced today, with the distribution of 150 million rapid point-of-care tests, all across America, is a testament to your leadership, Mr. President,” Pence said, and “is testament to this great team that you’ve assembled.”
As he concluded his litany of accomplishments, though, he offered a very carefully phrased warning.
“But with cases and positivity rising in 10 states in the Midwest and the near west,” Pence said, “and with this historic advance in testing that’s being distributed — 150 [million] strong around the country — Mr. President, the American people should anticipate that cases will rise in the days ahead.”
See what happened there? Pence suggests that all of these new tests will lead to more positive tests coming back over the short term, given the increase in the ability to track infections. But he coupled that with already existing trends — the increase in new cases nationally that’s been seen over the past two weeks.
Since June 24, the country has added at least 30,000 confirmed coronavirus cases a day on average. Over the past 10 days, that figure has topped 40,000, according to Washington Post data. That’s in part because of an increase in cases in Texas, but many of the other large states that powered the second surge in cases over the summer have seen relatively flat new case totals.
The surge has instead been in those Midwestern states to which Pence referred. There are 16 states in which at least 10 percent of tests are coming back positive over the past seven days — a worrisome indicator about the lack of containment of the virus, according to Post data. That included six states with rates at or above 15 percent.
These are existent surges that are driving new cases. What Pence is doing is establishing a baseline of expectations that the tests are driving the new case totals, which is not what’s actually happening at the moment.
Pence, as the head of the White House coronavirus task force, has consistently been asked to explain the progress (or lack thereof) made on the virus. Working with Anthony S. Fauci and Deborah Birx, the leading medical experts on the team, and others, he has been guiding the government’s response since February.
On Monday, though, he was followed not by Fauci or Birx to explain the medical side of things. Instead, Trump turned the microphone over to Scott Atlas — an addition to Trump’s team only after he espoused broadly reopening the economy during multiple Fox News segments.
It was a remarkable inclusion at the event if only because Atlas was making headlines earlier in the day. On Friday, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, was overheard by an NBC News reporter disparaging Atlas to a colleague in a phone call.
“Everything he says is false,” Redfield said of Atlas.
It’s worth noting that, during a briefing at the White House in the past week, Atlas, a radiologist by training, disparaged Redfield as well.
“Americans hear one thing from the CDC director and another thing from you,” a reporter asked Atlas then. “Who are we to believe?”
“You’re supposed to believe the science,” Atlas replied, “and I’m telling you the science.”
On Monday, Atlas’s comments were more broadly political, praising the government’s response and the new testing regimen. He also reinforced one of the strategies for which he has repeatedly received criticism.
“As the vice president mentioned,” he said, “we know that there are areas of the country that have more cases. This is to be expected with more social mingling and the testing, but particularly protecting the vulnerable is the key here.”
It’s hard not to read that as a summary of the approach he has advocated within the administration, according Post reporting: to slow the spread of the virus by allowing less at-risk people to be infected and therefore — hopefully — gain immunity. While deaths are down, in part because the population being infected is younger than earlier in the pandemic, there are more than 700 people dying each day from the virus at this point. A fifth of all deaths globally have occurred in the United States.
“As I’ve said many times, the fear is not the issue here,” Atlas added. “We really have a handle on what’s going on. We know what to anticipate, and there’s remarkable advances being made, as we see today.”
Keep calm and carry on with your lives, if you will. When Atlas was done, he turned the event back over to the president.
“I say it, and I’ll say it all the time: We’re rounding the corner,” Trump said, summarizing the event.
As a skeptic might note: If you say all the time that the country is rounding the corner, it suggests either a corner so big as to defy utility as a metaphor — or that the corner isn’t being rounded.