The Department of Health and Human Service’s plan puts the burden for testing on states and claims that existing testing capacity is sufficient to contain the outbreak so long as tests are distributed properly, even though leading epidemiologists have argued otherwise.
The Trump administration’s new plan for coronavirus testing once again passes the buck to states, while only promising to provide supplies such as swabs and material to transport test samples.
The proposal, which was presented Sunday to members of Congress, holds each state responsible for developing and implementing its own coronavirus testing strategy. The plan also says that existing testing capacity—about 400,000 tests a day, according to the COVID Tracking Project—is sufficient to contain the outbreak so long as tests are distributed properly, even though leading epidemiologists have argued otherwise.
The 81-page document from the Department of Health and Human Services says, “State plans must establish a robust testing program that ensures adequacy of COVID-19 testing, including tests for contact tracing, and surveillance of asymptomatic persons to determine community spread.”
The plan drew sharp criticism Monday from Democrats. In a joint letter, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., and Washington Sen. Patty Murray said the administration “still does not have a serious plan for increasing testing to stop the spread of the virus.”
“The Trump Administration still does not take any responsibility for ramping up our nation’s testing capacity, instead pushing the burden onto the states – forcing states to compete with each other to procure vital supplies to administer tests from the private market,” the lawmakers wrote.
The plan, which was first reported by the Washington Post, says the federal government will “ensure that States have the collection supplies that they need through December 2020.” To that end, the administration plans to acquire and distribute 100 million swabs and 100 million tubes of viral transport media.
Under the plan, the administration wants every state to test at least 2% of its population in May and June, but Scott Becker, executive director of the Association of Public Health Laboratories, pointed out that forcing states to compete against each other on the national and international markets and rely on unpredictable supply chains makes things a lot more difficult.
“That’s our biggest question, that’s our biggest concern, is the robustness of the supply chain, which is critical,” Becker told the New York Times. “You can’t leave it up to the states to do it for themselves. This is not the Hunger Games.”
This is not the first time that the Trump administration has left states to fend for themselves. President Trump has repeatedly refused to take responsibility for the nation’s testing shortage and even said last month that the federal government should be considered “the supplier of last resort,” and that states should develop their own testing plans. Earlier in April, Trump referred to the federal government as a “backup” in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak and has lashed out at states for their requests for personal protective equipment (PPE) and tests.
This wild, wild west approach has forced states to procure secret shipments of tests from abroad and go to great lengths to keep them from being seized by the Trump administration. In Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan used the Maryland National Guard and Maryland State Police to guard a massive shipment of coronavirus tests from South Korea in order to prevent them from being confiscated by the Trump administration. Similar stories have played out in states across the country as officials have struggled to obtain supplies and tests.
Testing has ramped up in recent weeks, but remains far short of the level that most experts say is needed to lift restrictions safely. Researchers at the Harvard Global Health Institute calculated that the United States would need to do approximately 900,000 tests per day as part of a strategy to begin reopening. Other experts and organizations have suggested that anywhere from 2 million to 35 million tests a day might be necessary.
The focus on testing underscores the importance of its widespread availability: Without ample and easily accessible testing, states may struggle to identify emerging outbreaks, which could lead to more cases and deaths.
“Testing is your first fundamental step in a plan to keep infected people from susceptible people,” Ashish Jha, the K. T. Li Professor of Global Health at Harvard and the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told The Atlantic earlier this month.
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Without enough testing and without a nationwide strategy, states will be on their own, resulting in a patchwork system that could leave the most under-resourced and vulnerable states with fewer tools to not only prevent further outbreaks, but deal with existing ones that are getting worse.
Research from The Imperial College of London published on Friday shows that the coronavirus may still be spreading at epidemic rates in 24 states, particularly in the South and Midwest. Without adequate testing, those epidemics could spiral out of control, with residents in those states paying the price.
Democrats have argued that by once again passing the buck to states the Trump administration is ignoring its responsibility and acting as if there are enough tests when there aren’t.
“In this document, the Trump Administration again attempts to paint a rosy picture about testing while experts continue to warn the country is far short of what we need,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote in their letter. “This disappointing report confirms that President Trump’s national testing strategy is to deny the truth that there aren’t enough tests and supplies, reject responsibility and dump the burden onto the states.”
They also called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to act on the $3 trillion virus release package passed earlier this month by the House, saying it would “deliver a clear strategy and $75 billion for the testing and contact tracing necessary to stop the spread of this vicious virus.”
“To reopen our economy safely, we need testing to be free, accurate, reliable and accompanied by tools like contact tracing so we can slow the spread of the virus and prevent outbreaks,” they wrote.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.