Health experts blast Trump order to cut down coronavirus testing
President Donald Trump holds a medical testing swab near his nose as he tours Puritan Medical Products, a medical swab manufacturer, June 5, 2020, in Guilford, Maine. | Patrick Semansky / AP

TULSA, Okla.—GOP President Donald Trump’s order to cut down coronavirus testing—because, in so many words, the results would make him look bad—is drawing flak from health experts and top congressional Democrats.

Trump boasted about his order at his half-filled controversial rally on June 20 in Tulsa, Okla. Health experts, both nationally and in the Sooner State, had warned the rally could escalate community spread of the coronavirus pandemic there.

Coronavirus testing is important for workers, especially front-line workers such as nurses and grocery workers, both to catch and quarantine people who test positive and to protect everyone else from “community spread.”

National Nurses United, the nation’s top union for RNs, has been sounding the alarm about lack of coronavirus testing, especially for front-line health care workers, since the pandemic began. After Trump’s declaration, others jumped in, too.

“We are lagging behind everyone else in testing for health care workers,” NNU Co-President Zunei Cortez, RN, said in a Zoom press call. “We have no (hospital) surge capacity, not enough PPE (personal protective equipment) and no tracking” of people who test positive and whom they come in contact with afterwards.

Even before Trump spoke, the coronavirus was spreading fast in Oklahoma. The Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker, the most reliable of several, reported daily Oklahoma coronavirus cases tripled from 158 on June 14 to 478 on June 21. That didn’t stop Trump.

“You know testing is a double-edged sword,” Trump said in Tulsa, after he claimed the U.S. has tested 25 million people, a number that could not be confirmed.

“Here’s the bad part. When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people. You’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’”

And just four days before Tulsa, in a White House roundtable on issues affecting senior citizens, Trump went even farther. “If you don’t test, you don’t have any cases,” he said. “If we stopped testing right now, we’d have very few cases, if any.”

Unnamed Trump aides later called his Tulsa remark a joke. Given his reputation—and his 17,000 documented lies since he took office—nobody else did. On Tuesday morning, Trump removed any doubt about how he intended his remarks about slowing down testing. He told the press before departing for Arizona, “I don’t kid.”

“Since the start of the coronavirus crisis in our country the president has ignored experts, denied facts, and put his self-interest ahead of Americans’ lives—and here he is saying so,” tweeted Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate Health Committee and on the Senate Appropriations Health Subcommittee, which has helped dole out $25 billion for more testing since the pandemic began.

Murray and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., fired off a letter on June 21 to Trump Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar about Trump’s comment, especially after they found out HHS hasn’t spent around one-third of the overall $25 billion in coronavirus testing money, and a miniscule amount of the extra $2 billion for free testing for the uninsured.

“The United States is at a critical juncture in its fight against COVID-19, and now is the time for an aggressive and fast response,” the senators wrote Azar. “This administration will put our country at grave risk if it tries to declare an early victory, leave lifesaving work undone, and leave resources our communities desperately need sitting untouched.”

“Funding to cover the cost of (free) testing for the uninsured is also critical,” the two added. They noted Congress appropriated an additional $2 billion for that, but “only $10.8 million, or 0.5%…set aside to help providers pay for COVID-19 testing for uninsured patients, has been approved to be paid during the first two weeks of the program’s operation.”

“Testing, tracing treatment, and social distancing are the only tools we have to stop the spread of the coronavirus,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement. “But President Trump orders his administration to slow down the testing that saves lives.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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