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Conflict over sufficient virus testing prevails between Trump and Cuomo

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence look on as a video of New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo giving a news conference is played on Sunday. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/JIM WATSON

In the ongoing national triage of the coronavirus pandemic, states are amplifying their calls for federal government leadership on testing amid mixed signals from the Trump Administration about the need for tests and its ability to provide them.

As states begin formulating reopening plans in response to a leveling off new cases in some hot spots, including New York, the importance of testing to gauge the virus’ potential spread beyond the visibly afflicted has grown more acute. Testing to date has centered almost exclusively on those showing symptoms of the virus, but reopening plans largely left to the states will necessitate vastly wider and closer monitoring of cases to detect potential new waves of infection.

States have been telegraphing the need for increased testing for weeks, and their calls to the Trump Administration have grown increasingly more urgent as some began loosening lockdowns last week.

In an April 15 memo, the National Governors Association noted “widespread testing capacity has been severely limited by shortages of testing components” and “bottlenecks at laboratories” to perform the tests. The governors requested that the federal government “rapidly build testing capacity and coordinate distribution to states,” including urging Trump to fully implement the Defense Production Act to facilitate national testing.

But the response from the federal government, and even within the Trump Administration, has been mixed, alternating from responsive to confrontational.

Just Monday, as governors pressed Congress for a new stimulus bill that could include $25 billion for testing, President Donald Trump accused Democrats of “playing a very dangerous political game” by raising alarms about the lack of testing equipment. Democrats want the new stimulus bill to include a requirement that the federal government create a national testing strategy for the virus, The New York Times reported. Trump's Monday comments follow by a day his pledge to invoke the Defense Production Act to increase testing equipment, including swabs.

Some governors aren't waiting. Maryland's Gov. Larry Hogan said Monday the state had contracted on its own with a South Korean company for some 500,000 tests, at a cost of $9 million. 

Trump's uneven messages came as Vice President Mike Pence on Monday told governors, “When it comes to testing, we’re here to help,” according to audio of the call reported by the AP, one day after Pence said on "Meet the Press" that there was "sufficient capacity" nationally for testing.

Trump has also sparred directly with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has been relentless and increasingly urgent in calling for the federal government to play the key role in testing, even as states seek to ramp up capabilities at hospitals.

Testing is vital as reopening is being contemplated to avoid gains made in the weeks since the lockdown began last month, Cuomo said. Another spike in cases could happen in just days, he said, if asymptomatic cases of coronavirus begin to spread without careful monitoring.

Cuomo last week said a chief concern is being able to track the rate of infection — how often each infected person passes it on to another. The only way to know, he said, is to test more frequently.

Cuomo and others have also made the point that much of the testing equipment, including chemical reagents needed to process the tests, are made in the Far East, mostly in China, and that’s led to bidding wars among states, private contractors, even the federal government. Consolidating that procurement by the federal government, he said, would help reduce costs and inject order into a chaotic process.

Some states say they have the ability to test, but lack the equipment needed to ramp up that testing to needed levels.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on "CNN Sunday" said her state could triple the amount of testing it currently does, if only the federal government would help in providing more equipment needed to do it. In short supply are everything from nasal swabs to the chemical reagents needed to process the tests.

Democratic-led Michigan, which is still seeing an increase in cases, has been a repeated target of Trump, who last week called for protesters to “Liberate” the state from Whitmer’s lockdown order.

From the earliest days of the pandemic, the Trump Administration has sent mixed messages about its ability to monitor it through testing. In March, Trump and officials alternately indicated the federal government had the capacity to do anywhere from several million to upward of 27 million by the end of March. As of April 20, the United States has collectively conducted 3.86 million COVID-19 tests of its 328 million people, with daily capacity now at 167,330, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

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