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White House Watch: ‘Inadequate’ vs ‘Non-Existent’

Numbers, graphs, plaintive accounts from hospitals and communities, bereaved relatives – the worst week so far goes on and there’s no way to sugarcoat it.

New cases are leveling off, but past infections keep leading to deaths now in numbers never seen before. The medical experts hope deaths are getting close to peaking. They hope social distancing is not peaking.

For Christians, Good Friday arrives with empty churches. Easter sunrise services will mostly be in the shade, indoors though there are some surreptitious gatherings being planned and in fact are permitted in some states, if worshippers say separated enough.

The president and vice president and members of the Corona Virus Task Force try to be encouraging about those new cases, about the promise of a leveling off of the curve, how that suggests in a week-and-a-half to three weeks the death count will start to go down. The viewer tends to assume they are trying a little too hard to lean against the bad news that’s happening now.

“We are supremely confident in the magnificent future that awaits the American people,” president Trump read from his prepared remarks. Now, though, he leavens his remarks with reality. “You can never do anything about the people that lost their loved ones…I’m not sure a lot of people will ever be the same.”

The numbers he and the Task Force members did not update are hard to absorb. Sunday through Thursday 7,157 Americans or thereabouts have died. Of the 16,691 total US deaths, about 7,067 have been in New York State where the epicentre of the epicentre is a neighborhood in Queens. Hundreds more die at home, never having been formally diagnosed.

In a day or two there will have been 100,000 reported virus deaths worldwide.

It took eight months of bombing during the fabled Blitz of Britain to kill 41,000 people, a period incidentally in which suicides and drunkenness declined.

Raising hopes about reopening the country, where about 90% of the population are staying at home, is a natural impulse, particularly for a president who says he wants to be a “cheerleader” for the country.

Most governors and mayors are not preparing to tell the people that elected them to go back to work any time soon, regardless of what the White House advises.

The virus can be fenced in but not eradicated. The fence will be surveillance testing to see where it’s going. Contact tracers, who don’t need to be medical personnel, will be tracking down those who were close enough to transmit or catch the disease. Someday a vaccine will make the fence much higher.

There will be tens of thousands of contact tracers, most of them probably volunteers. There will also be antibody tests that clearly show who has become immune.

Still, when the question is raised, it is often where that system of testing and tracing is right now or when will it be “adequate” to become that fence around the virus.

Again, Thursday night, “How can you in the administration discuss the possibility of reopening the country when the administration is not having an adequate nationwide testing system for this virus?” was the question from the network Trump despises, CNN.

America has “the best testing system in the world”, was the president’s answer. “But there are certain sections…of the country that are in phenomenal shape.”

“What we’ll be doing in the very near future is going to certain areas of our country and do massive testing,” he continued.

Testing everyone in a country of 325 million people? “That’s not going to happen,” he said.

“We want to have it and we’re going to see if we have it,” he said. “Do you need it? No. Is it a nice thing to do? Yes.”

So, breaking that all down, the president is actually correct, that you don’t need to test 325 million people to build a fence around the virus. You do need a certain proportion of the population sampled with surveillance testing. You need follow-up from the contact tracers. You need immunity testing, a separate procedure.

The testing regime is finally being built aggressively. More hospital administrators and laboratory technicians still have to learn to use new processes that return testing results in minutes, something that’s hardly gotten started.

So the main problem with that entire exchange is the word “adequate” in the question. In total, the testing system in the United States, even at 125,000 tests a day, is not just inadequate or hardly adequate, it’s nonexistent at nearly the scope it needs to have.

Vice president Mike Pence was somewhat more straightforward Thursday night but again, with little reference to time. “We’re moving every day toward meeting that moment,” he said, when testing will meet the need.

During the day, the NIH’s Task Force expert Tony Fauci said, “I wouldn’t reopen New York until you can do containment.” That also didn’t answer the question of when and he did not need to explain how far containment is from the current lockdown mitigation.

Does anyone who listens to the news think April 30 is the end of social distancing? Does anyone think any large part of the economy will have reopened by mid-May?

Thursday was the first time the few reporters who can still be accommodated in a socially distanced White House press briefing room were all administered a virus test, using the speedy procedure that can be finished in a few minutes. Apparently no-one proved positive.

“I think we’re going to open up strong,” Trump repeated. “I think we’re going to open up very successfully. And I’d like to say even more successfully than before.”

He’s reported to be assembling a separate task force of government officials and private business executives to begin to study how to do it.

Denny Gulino

Julie Ros

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