Coronavirus Update: The White House Ramps Up The Coronavirus Testing

May 11, 2020
Originally published on May 11, 2020 7:27 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

States are slowly rebooting parts of their economies, but that phased reopening may not be happening fast enough for the president. This morning, writing on Twitter, he said, quote, "The great people of Pennsylvania want their freedom now. Democrats are moving slowly all over the U.S.A. Don't play politics. Be safe. Move quickly." In another tweet, he asserted, quote, "coronavirus numbers are looking much better, going down almost everywhere."

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Actually, some 80,000 Americans have now died from the virus, and more than 1.3 million have been infected. Case numbers are also going up in the government, with two White House aides testing positive for the virus last week. The heads of three of the nation's top medical and public health agencies are now in quarantine. Speaking yesterday on CBS, Trump's economic adviser Kevin Hassett described what it's like working at the White House these days.

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KEVIN HASSETT: It is scary to go to work. You know, I was not part of the White House in March. I think that I'd be a lot safer if I was sitting at home than I would be going to the West Wing. But you know, it's the time when people have to step up and serve their country.

CHANG: Today, staff in the West Wing were ordered to wear masks. And as the White House ramps up testing of its own staff, the president spoke this afternoon about testing the rest of the country and committed to spending billions of dollars to do so. Joining us now to talk more about all of this is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris and political correspondent Scott Detrow.

Hey to both of you.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good afternoon.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. So Scott, let's start with you. We are seeing another shift here from the White House. Now it's about insisting on masks for the entire West Wing staff. What changed?

DETROW: Well, (inaudible) and the White House had been almost dismissive of masks and social distancing in recent weeks. Remember, back when President Trump first announced the CDC recommendations for wearing masks, he immediately said that he would not wear one and kept saying it was optional. And that tone kind of stuck going forward. But their message that everything is safe to reopen was undermined at the end of last week when the president's military valet and Vice President Mike Pence's press secretary both tested positive. President Trump was asked about this change today in the White House.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We had a lot of people that work here. This building is shocking if you looked at the numbers. And it's also tremendous numbers of people coming in. Normally, you wouldn't do that. But because we're running a country, we want to keep our country running, so we have a lot of people coming in and out. Many of those people - most of those people are tested depending on what portion of the Oval Office area they're going in. Everybody coming into the president's office gets tested.

DETROW: Well, the president right there said it was one person on the staff, but that had a ripple effect because Katie Miller had - she coordinates communications for the coronavirus task force. So now, as you mentioned, several members of that task force are in some sort of self-quarantine. But President Trump did say they've all recently tested negative for coronavirus. Still, they're going to be testifying remotely tomorrow. Up until now, the White House officials had said that the amount of testing at the White House keeps the president protected. But today in the Rose Garden, you suddenly saw a lot more of the staff wearing masks.

CHANG: All right. Well, Richard, let's turn to you. I mean, until today's order that everyone in the West Wing of the White House should wear a mask, the White House was relying on just testing key people for the virus. Despite that, we now know of two cases, at least, of coronavirus on the staff. So was that testing-only strategy a mistake?

HARRIS: Well, everyone should know that no test is a hundred percent perfect, whether it's one in your doctor's office or one at the White House. And people who get infected with the coronavirus don't test positive right away. This is an additional wrinkle with this test. The virus may lurk deep in the lungs. Swabs go deep into the nose and the throat. They can also miss it when the - when you're swabbed that way. And in the case of the White House, they're using a test that takes a sample from the front of the nostrils. The FDA has approved that type of sampling for this test, saying it's good enough. But you know, you cannot expect perfection either in sample collection or in the technical part of the test.

CHANG: But are masks likely to be an improvement?

HARRIS: Well, most people in D.C. are being told to stay away from the office altogether, if possible. And offices where people are working together in tight spaces in particular are a particular concern. If you absolutely have to go to work, masks can reduce the spread of particles from a cough or a sneeze. You know, they reduce the risk to people around you. And they may help you a bit, but that's not the main point. They may help you if you - if the mask discourages you from touching your mouth and your face, you know, your nose and your eyes and so on, which is one way you can get infected if you've previously touched a contaminated surface.

You recall that masks were first pooh-poohed by the public health officials, but the...

CHANG: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...CDC has changed its views and now recommends them in places like grocery stores, places where it's hard to maintain social distancing. You know, the evidence is still not overwhelming, but we can't afford to wait for really careful data. And it seems on balance to be a beneficial practice.

CHANG: OK. Well, Scott, as we mentioned, the White House is testing people who came in close contact with both the president and vice president. But the president has kind of bristled at the suggestion that there isn't enough testing to go around in the rest of the country. What is the White House saying about that today?

DETROW: And as you recall, as the criticism of the test supply and capacity increase, the president increasingly said it was the state responsibility, not the federal government's responsibility...

CHANG: Right.

DETROW: ...To get testing put together. So there was a slight shift in that today. He announced $11 billion in already approved funding to help states at a much - test at a much higher rate over the rest of the month. The White House is clearly trying to show here that they're providing support so states can accomplish their May testing goals. This means more funding, as well as supplies like swabs. But of course, it's really important to remember here - the White House has repeatedly promised a lot of similar ramp-ups over the past few months, and none of them have met the needs, according to a lot of governors.

CHANG: Well, Richard, back to you. There was a new antigen test approved last Friday. What is an antigen? How does this test work? And will that help close the gap in testing that we've been seeing?

HARRIS: Well, it could help. There are now three types of tests. The one we hear about most still is the one that detects the genetic material from a virus. That's the gold standard for testing used in clinics around the country and so on. The second type of test looks for coronavirus antibodies in the blood. That test can tell if you've been previously exposed to the virus. And people hope that means they will be immune, but we actually don't know that's the case.

And this newest kind of test you just mentioned, the antigen test, is a test that identifies bits of protein from the virus. That kind of test can be performed really quickly, and they are easy to produce. It's like the strep test that you can get at your doctor's office. But you know, they aren't as dependable as the test that looks for the genetic material.

The FDA, in approving this, giving it an emergency use authorization - which is short of approval, actually - did say that they were concerned that a negative test result from this test could be wrong. So it remains to be seen exactly how they will be put to use.

CHANG: OK. Well, there was also news here in California. Health officials here talked about their time-consuming efforts to track down people who had returned from China and later from Iran on flights in both February and March. How effective did all of that turn out to be?

HARRIS: Well, state health officials put a huge amount of effort into this. They say they catalogued 1,700 hours of precious personnel time.

CHANG: Wow.

HARRIS: But it didn't really pay off. The state health officials report in the Centers for Disease Control's publication Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that they followed more than 12,000 travelers. But in the end, they only identified three cases from this whole effort.

CHANG: Wow. This sounds like a really thorough study. Why was it so unsuccessful?

HARRIS: Well, one reason was they - noted in the article - they got a lot of bad information from the federal screeners at the airports. They got bad phone numbers, wrong addresses. Names were misspelled. They had wrong dates of birth and other glitches. And that really impeded their efforts to track these people down. The state officials say it certainly could've helped if airlines had at least shared their travel manifest, which they could've used to verify travel information. You know, that has privacy concerns surrounding it, and I think that that is a discussion that will have to go on moving forward.

But you know what that really does is it gives you a sense of some of the challenges surrounding contact tracing, which is a critical part of this return-to-work plan. You know, we've been talking a lot about testing. But you know, it's not just testing. You have to really do contact tracing as well, and not to mention that you also have to isolate people who you find to be sick. So testing is really just one piece of this. And we're seeing glimpses of how hard some of the other pieces are as well.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris and NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow.

Thanks to both of you.

DETROW: Sure thing.

HARRIS: Sure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.