President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
While Trump has a number of risk factors for a severe case of the disease, one advantage is that his infection was detected fairly early, before serious symptoms appeared. This is because the White House can run regular and quick tests, which is still out of reach for many jobs in the US even when they reopen.
Detecting and isolating an infected person early on can help limit the spread of the virus. This also increases the likelihood that they will seek medical help sooner and possibly avoid the worst outcomes.
It is not yet clear what type of test Trump received, despite the fact that the White House used Abbott Labs' ID NOW system which has had some accuracy issues. The president himself has had frequent tests for the virus at least every few days since July.
For a while, White House staff also had the opportunity to get tested regularly. In August, the White House made random Covid-19 tests mandatory for employees.
This move to make testing mandatory shows that White House officials have clearly recognized the importance of testing in maintaining a safe job during the pandemic. However, Trump has called for Covid-19 tests to be slowed down in the US, arguing that the level of testing being done in the US reveals more cases and makes the country look worse compared to others. "I said to my people, 'please slow down the tests," he said in June.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) subsequently revised their testing guidelines to reduce the number of tests performed, Vox's German Lopez explained:
We don't know how much, if anything, Trump was involved in the policy change. But we know that Trump has repeatedly complained too much about the US tests. He argued that "testing is a double-edged sword," adding that "if you test to this extent, you will find more people – you will find more cases." The implication is that testing will make the US look bad as there will be more confirmed coronavirus cases.
Experts counter that this is absurd: whether or not tests confirm Covid-19 cases, these cases exist and lead to more infections, illnesses and deaths.
Not only is it hypocritical that Trump and the White House are pushing internal testing while downplaying its usefulness for the rest of the country on political grounds. The cryptic test device in the United States continues to be a major obstacle preventing progress in containing Covid-19.
Since Covid-19 can be spread by people who do not feel or show symptoms, testing remains crucial to identify people who have been exposed and who may be spreading the virus and triggering new, spreading events. Without a vaccine or approved drug for Covid-19, the best strategy to fight the pandemic remains to test people, isolate those infected, and trace their contacts. This is the key strategy that countries like Germany, South Korea and New Zealand are successfully using to limit the spread of Covid-19 within their respective borders.
Experts have estimated that the United States would need millions of tests a day to control the spread of the disease and safely reopen the economy. An estimate was 35 million tests per day with daily tests for key workers. As expensive as such a test regime may be, it is a tiny fraction of the devastating economic consequences of the pandemic.
Scientists, researchers, economists and workers have consistently reminded executives the importance of testing in limiting the destruction of the pandemic and reopening schools, offices and shops.
However, during the pandemic, the United States struggled to conduct adequate testing. The lack of test equipment, delayed results, and price cuts have all affected the U.S. response to Covid-19. As recently as September, the number of daily tests in the country exceeded 1 million. Germany currently tests 66 percent more people per capita than the US.
Now schools, universities, offices, and public institutions across the country are starting to reopen, many in states without adequate testing. One way to tell if a state is doing enough testing is by looking at the positivity rate. Ideally, fewer than 5 percent of the tests should be positive. A higher positive rate means there are likely to be far more undetected cases in which the virus is spreading.
And a test is just a snapshot. Hence, it is also important that the results are delivered quickly. Otherwise, a test result is controversial.
Currently, only 19 states and the District of Columbia are below this 5 percent positivity threshold, which means 31 states are still not doing enough testing. Some individual workplaces have been reinforced with regular tests for employees. For example, the University of Illinois has implemented a system that tests all students and staff twice a week, up to 17,000 tests a day.
Part of the improvement in testing has been facilitated by new technologies such as rapid antigen testing. These tests may be less accurate, but they are cheap and quick. This allows for more frequent and repeated testing, which in turn can help control the spread of SARS-CoV-2.
However, such aggressive tests are far from the norm. Covid-19 cases are already creeping in again in some parts of the country, and experts are warning of an even bigger increase this fall and winter.
The U.S.'s ongoing struggles with Covid-19 tests are not a good sign of a possible vaccine. As complicated as it was to coordinate the funding, logistics, and supplies to bring testing to today's inadequate levels, a vaccine would be far more complicated on any front.
And alongside Trump's hypocrisy, his tangled messages and political interference in science during the pandemic won't make these tasks any easier.
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