Image via Shutterstock Coronavirus testing
Image via Shutterstock

“What we need to do is much bigger than most people realize,” the report’s authors write.

Just as President Trump and his task force begin laying out plans to reopen the United States and Republican governors start relaxing stay-at-home restrictions, Harvard researchers warn that the U.S. will need at least 20 million tests per day to relaunch the economy safely.

“What we need to do is much bigger than most people realize,” the report’s authors write. According to the COVID Tracking Project, the U.S. is testing an average of 150,000 people per day. As of Wednesday, nearly 4.2 million Americans had been tested.

The new report, released by Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics on Monday, comes just a day before health officials confirmed that two people died with the coronavirus in California weeks before the first reported death from the disease. 

Santa Clara County officials said Tuesday the people died at home Feb. 6 and Feb. 17, with the first death in the nation from the virus reported on Feb. 29 in Kirkland, Washington. The Medical Examiner-Coroner received confirmation Tuesday that tissue samples sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested positive for the virus, officials said.

The new information underscores just how unprepared the Trump administration has been in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, and reiterates the need for widespread testing.

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More than 45 health professionals, scientists, and economists collaborated on the Harvard report to offer a “consensus national strategy” that they believe best serves the country in its efforts to return to some semblance of normalcy. “We need to massively scale-up testing, contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine—together with providing the resources to make these possible for all individuals,” they write. By early June, the report states, 5 million Americans need to be tested a day to safely reopen parts of the economy; by late July, 20 million Americans should be tested daily to “fully re-mobilize the economy.” 

The report’s authors estimate that such an increase in testing would cost about $15 billion a month, but they add that doing so would “prevent cycles of opening up and shutting down,” and allow the healthcare system to become manageable until a vaccine can be developed.

The report’s recommendations for testing are a radical increase compared to other projections: Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told The Hill the country would need to conduct up to 3 million tests per week to reopen, while infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said the number should be about 4 million tests weekly.

The bottom line, of course, is that the United States is nowhere near the amount of testing it needs to be conducting in order to contain the novel coronavirus that’s since killed more than 45,000 Americans as of Wednesday morning.

“The more testing, the more open the economy. But there’s not enough national capacity to do this,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) said recently. “We can’t do it yet. That is the unvarnished truth.”

The Trump administration has struggled since the very beginning of the coronavirus crisis to ensure testing kits are available. The president initially declined to pursue more aggressive testing for the disease in the early weeks out of fear that more positive cases would hurt his re-election effort, moved slowly to respond in the months since, and has said it’s up to the states to get their own medical supplies. 

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As a result, states have been forced to fend for themselves. For example, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced on Monday that he secured half a million coronavirus test kits from South Korea.

Danielle Allen, lead author of the report and a political theorist at Harvard told ABC News that this “is a moment for a ‘Can Do America’ to really show up and put itself to work.” 

One of the biggest challenges, she continued, is just how many people have COVID-19 but are asymptomatic. “That means you’ve got a whole lot of people out there spreading the virus around and we haven’t been able to do anything about it.”

“What people need to recognize is that massively scaled-up testing, tracing and supported isolation system is the alternative to national quarantine,” she added.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press.