Trump Vows More Coronavirus Testing, but Less Than What May Be Needed

WASHINGTON — President Trump, under growing pressure to expand coronavirus testing as states move to reopen their economies, unveiled a new plan on Monday to ramp up the federal government’s help to states, but his proposal runs far short of what most public health experts say is necessary.

Mr. Trump’s announcement in the Rose Garden came after weeks of him insisting, inaccurately, that the nation’s testing capability “is fully sufficient to begin opening up the country,” as he said on April 18. Numerous public health experts say that is untrue, and Mr. Trump’s plan may do little to fix it.

An administration official said the federal government aimed to give states the ability to test at least 2 percent of their populations per month, though the president did not use that figure and it was not in his written plan. Instead, Mr. Trump and other officials with him in the Rose Garden said the United States would “double” the number of tests it had been doing.

“These were not complaining people. They had everything they needed. They had their ventilators; they had their testing,” Mr. Trump said on Monday after a call with governors. “We’re getting them what they need.”

In fact, governors have been complaining that they do not have nearly enough tests to give them the kind of information they need to make difficult decisions about reopening. They say they are competing with one another — and other countries — for the components that make up the testing kits, including nasal swabs and chemicals that detect whether the virus is present in a specimen.

Rather than one coordinated federal response, the Trump administration has been engaging on an ad hoc basis as states take the lead. In Kansas, for example, after an outbreak of the coronavirus in the meatpacking industry threatened to shutter plants that supply one-quarter of the nation’s meat, tests were ferried in by Kansas National Guard pilots in Blackhawk helicopters — but only after Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, pleaded with Mr. Trump for help.

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The Trump administration has come under intense criticism for not doing more, and for not providing specific guidance to the states about how much testing is necessary in its initial plan for reopening the economy, “Guidelines for Reopening America Again,” released this month. Outside experts have recommended that anywhere from 0.9 percent to 50 percent of the American public must be tested for the coronavirus every week.

“I think it’s really important that the White House has put out much more specific guidance for states around testing,” said Jen Kates, a senior vice president and director of global health and H.I.V. policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation, who has analyzed states’ capacity for testing. But the plan to test 2 percent, she said, “may not be enough.”

Paul Romer, a Nobel Prize-winning economist from New York University who has recommended that 50 percent of the population be tested each week, said testing 2 percent “is not enough to test everyone in health care even once, let alone to keep retesting them every day, which is what it would take to keep those who do get infected from going on shift and infecting their colleagues.”

Congress has been pushing the Trump administration to come up with a clearer strategy. The $484 billion stimulus package lawmakers passed last week designated $25 billion to expand testing capacity and required the administration to come up with a plan to support the states.

Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate Health Committee, said on Monday that Mr. Trump’s plan was meaningless.

“This document does nothing new and will accomplish nothing new,” Ms. Murray said in a statement. “It doesn’t set specific, numeric goals, offer a time frame, identify ways to fix our broken supply chain, or offer any details whatsoever on expanding lab capacity or activating needed manufacturing capacity. Perhaps most pathetically, it attempts to shirk obvious federal responsibilities by assigning them solely to states instead.”

Undeterred, Mr. Trump said on Monday that states must reopen “as quickly as possible, but safely.”

He even called on governors to consider reconvening schools before the end of the academic year rather than waiting until the fall, as many districts have decided or expect to do.

In a conference call with the governors devoted mainly to ventilators and testing, Mr. Trump on his own raised the idea of bringing students back to the classrooms in the next few weeks. “The young children have done very well in this disaster that we’ve all gone through, so a lot of people are thinking about the school openings,” Mr. Trump said, according to an audio recording obtained by The New York Times.

Addressing Vice President Mike Pence, who was also on the call, he added, “I think it’s something, Mike, they can seriously consider and maybe get going on it.”

None of the governors on the call addressed the idea, although at least one state, Montana, was already moving ahead with the possibility of reopening schools before the start of summer.

Still eager to be the dominant voice on the crisis, Mr. Trump reversed a decision announced by the White House to cancel his daily coronavirus news briefing on Monday and went before the cameras again despite days of complaining that the events were not worth the time and effort because of journalistic bias. He took over the announcement of a testing plan originally put out by lower-level officials.

The administration has steadfastly resisted calls to nationalize the production and distribution of coronavirus test kits, and the plan Mr. Trump unveiled on Monday reiterated that stance, making clear that the states are still primarily responsible for testing and Washington is the “supplier of last resort.”

Rather than the more comprehensive surveillance testing sought by many public health experts, the administration is focused on a more limited goal of “sentinel” testing of targeted sites that are particularly vulnerable, like nursing homes and inner-city health centers.

In the seven weeks since Mr. Trump promised that anyone who needed a test could get one, the United States has conducted about 5.2 million tests, far more than any other country, but still the equivalent of about 1.6 percent of the total population.

A group of experts convened by Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics has called for five million tests a day by early June, ramping up to 20 million per day by late July.

Peter Baker and Jonathan Martin contributed reporting.

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