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Trump and governors at odds on coronavirus testing

President Donald Trump holds up two types of

President Donald Trump holds up two types of swabs at the White House briefing Sunday. Credit: AFP via Getty Images / Jim Watson

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Meeting the test

President Donald Trump is sticking to his story that America has conducted 4.1 million tests for coronavirus, and it's going great. Governors from both parties say testing is nowhere near where it has to be to begin the first phases of reopening the country, reports Newsday's Laura Figueroa Hernandez and Scott Eidler.

While conceding nothing, Trump announced Sunday at his coronavirus briefing that he will invoke the Defense Production Act to order a company to increase the nation’s testing-swab production by at least 20 million per month. Trump didn't name the manufacturer, but CNN said it's Maine-based Puritan Medical Products.

Swabs aren't the only problem, according to Maryland Republican Larry Hogan, Michigan Democrat Gretchen Whitmer and Virginia Democrat Ralph Northam. Appearing on Sunday morning political shows, the three governors said that while their states may have the capacity to open labs and scale up testing, they are lacking not just swabs but the chemicals known as reagents needed to run the tests.

Trump contended Sunday night that the reagents are "so easy to get." But Republican Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio said he could "double, maybe even triple testing" if federal regulators helped get different reagent chemicals approved for use.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the federal government must help cash-strapped states pay for testing. Public health experts have said testing remains a critical part of the federal government’s strategy to reopen the economy, noting that a lack of widespread testing could lead to further outbreaks once social distancing restrictions are relaxed. Said Cuomo: "The beast is still alive. We did not kill the beast. And the beast can rise up again." The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 topped 41,000 on Sunday.

Vice President Mike Pence, also conceding nothing, said he would hold a conference call with the governors on Monday to discuss supply issues. "We're here to help," he said.

A federal official overseeing testing issues hinted at adjusting public estimates of testing goals downward to make the administration's performance look better. Adm. Brett Giroir, also a medical doctor, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Thursday that he believed 3 million or 4 million tests would be performed in April, but 6 million to 7 million were needed. However, speaking at Friday's White House briefing, he said 4.5 million would be enough. Asked in a Journal interview Saturday to explain the change, he said, "I revised that down from the podium.”

Touching all his bases

Trump suggested he deserves credit for the federal government's adoption of strong social distancing recommendations.

He pointed to declining trajectory in new cases in the Seattle, Detroit, New Orleans, Indianapolis and Houston metro areas as “more evidence that our aggressive strategy is working.” Said Trump: “We would’ve had millions of people die if we didn’t do this. Millions of people.”

In the same daily briefing, Trump embraced the right-wing protesters in numerous state capitals who want restrictions lifted and said some governors "have gone too far." He contended the protesters — many of them sporting Trump campaign regalia — followed social distancing rules, which photos and videos show to be untrue.

The protesters have "cabin fever," the president said. “I’ve never seen so many American flags at a rally as I’ve seen at these rallies. These people love our country. They want to get back to work."

What was heard at WHO

More than a dozen U.S. researchers, physicians and public health experts — many of them from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — were working full time at the World Health Organization's Geneva headquarters as coronavirus emerged late last year. They transmitted real-time information about its discovery and spread in China to the Trump administration, U.S. and international officials told The Washington Post.

The presence of so many U.S. officials undercuts Trump’s stepped-up effort to pin the blame on WHO for the late start in confronting the threat. Senior Trump-appointed health officials consulted regularly at the highest levels with the WHO as the crisis unfolded, the officials said.

A Health and Human Services spokeswoman said the department had 17 members at the WHO but that they were not "decision-makers." She said the U.S. presence didn't change that the information WHO leadership was sending the U.S. was "incorrect and relied too heavily on China."

Janison: The bug stops there

One revelation from how Trump responded as the coronavirus threat loomed: For the president, all of his renowned germaphobia is local.

Long before the pandemic, a cough or sneeze in Trump's presence brought his scowl and scolding to go away. It makes it all the more surprising that the president did not seem to recoil on behalf of the country when COVID-19 danger drew near.

"Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away," Trump told reporters on Feb. 10. Warnings to Trump from Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar were dismissed as alarmist, according to several published accounts.

Perhaps it was two other health issues competing for his attention: of the markets and his campaign. See Dan Janison's column for Newsday.

Poll: No, thanks, we'll wait

While Trump has been egging on protesters defying their states' stay-at-home orders, 58% of American voters are worried the restrictions will be lifted too soon, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Only 32% are worried governors will wait too long.

Since March, the percentage of voters worried that someone in their immediate family would catch the disease has jumped to 73% from 53%.

Also in the poll, 44% of voters say they approve of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus response, while 52% disapprove. Only 36% say they generally trust what Trump has said when it comes to coronavirus, while 52% say they don’t trust him. Governors and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious diseases expert, are trusted far more.

In the race for the White House, the poll shows presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden ahead of Trump by 7 points nationally among registered voters, 49% to 42%.

When the bill comes due

In a crisis so deep, few have opposed the government's transfusion of trillions of dollars into the U.S. economy to keep it from totally collapsing.

But a question hangs over the decisions, reports Newsday's Tom Brune. How will the federal government ultimately pay for it? 

Essentially, the government is borrowing the funds, and the Federal Reserve, the nation’s central bank, expands the credit available by in effect “printing” money. Trump and some lawmakers call it "free" money in the sense that interest rates are at a rock-bottom historic low.

But Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said the failure of Congress and the White House to get the debt under control, especially when the economy was strong, foretells hard times ahead.

“Once we get through this,” MacGuineas said, “figuring out what to do about it is going to be ever so much more difficult and, frankly, painful.” That means raising more revenue and cutting spending, she said.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest pandemic developments from Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Jesse Coburn and Lisa L. Colangelo. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • The Trump administration and Congress were nearing an agreement Sunday on an aid package of up to $450 billion to replenish a small-business loan program that ran out of money last week. It would also provide funds for hospitals and more COVID-19 testing.
  • Nursing homes will now be required to report all coronavirus cases to patients, families of patients and the CDC. Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, made the announcement at Sunday's White House briefing.
  • Verma also announced guidelines for hospitals to restart elective surgeries while maintaining their ability to treat COVID-19 patients. "This isn't going to be like a light switch. It's more like a sunrise where it's a going to be a gradual process," she said.
  • Trump said at Saturday's briefing that he recently received “a nice note” from Kim Jong Un. Oh, no, he didn't, North Korea said Sunday. It sounds like Kim is miffed. A Foreign Ministry statement said: “The relations between the top leaders of [North Korea] and the U.S. are not an issue to be taken up just for diversion nor it should be misused for meeting selfish purposes.”
  • Republican lawmakers are stepping up attacks on China, and so is Trump's own campaign with ads depicting Biden as soft on Beijing. But Trump hasn't gotten fully on board, eager to protect his relationship with President Xi Jinping and move forward in trade talks, The New York Times reports.
  • Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on CNN's "State of the Union" that a full economic recovery is months, not years, away.
  • Trump has made several attacks on Whitmer, but Republicans worry her growing popularity at home will help Democrats carry the battleground state in November, The New York Times reported.

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