White House announces major improvements in coronavirus testing (again)

WASHINGTON — The setting was familiar, and so were the assurances. Speaking from the Rose Garden on Monday afternoon, President Trump promised a “massive and groundbreaking expansion” in the nation’s ability to perform diagnostic tests for the coronavirus.

“We are now at an inflection point in testing,” said Adm. Brett Giroir, a high-ranking Department of Health and Human Services official who is in charge of testing on the White House coronavirus task force. He said that 920,000 coronavirus diagnostic tests were now being performed nationwide each day. Some 7 million Americans have tested positive.

The expansion was made possible by Abbott Laboratories, whose rapid BinaxNOW test can return results in mere minutes without requiring the intrusive nasal swab that can make a coronavirus test an acutely unpleasant experience.

The Trump administration purchased 150 million such tests for $760 million. They will go to nursing homes, schools and other institutions, including historically Black colleges and universities.

Admiral Brett Giroir, Assistant Secretary for Health, Department of Health and Human Services, shows a nasal swab during a coronavirus testing event with President Donald Trump, in the Rose Garden of the White House, Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Adm. Brett Giroir shows a nasal swab during a coronavirus testing event with President Trump on Monday. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Trump first promised that any American could get a coronavirus test in early March. That was untrue at the time, and though the availability of tests has greatly increased, shortages persist in the United States. So do days-long waits to receive results from laboratories. The BinaxNOW test does not need to be sent to a laboratory.

Ever the nation’s cheerleader, Trump tried to use Monday’s announcement as a pivot away from a summer marked by persistently high death counts and fears of a second lockdown.

“We’re rounding the corner,” Trump said on Monday afternoon. He said much the same thing from the Rose Garden in May, telling the nation that “we have met the moment, and we have prevailed.” In subsequent weeks and months, COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, while receding in New York and other early hot spots, would erupt in Sun Belt states like Florida, Arizona and Texas, where Republican governors eagerly followed the president’s call to reopen businesses and places of gathering.

Giroir demonstrated administration of the BinaxNOW test from a podium at the Rose Garden, dribbling six drops of test reagent onto a square of cardboard, swabbing his nostrils with a probe and then dipping it into the liquid. The results would be available in 15 minutes, he said. He did not disclose what they were.

“This is a very sophisticated little piece of cardboard,” Giroir said as he concluded his demonstration.

“This is not a home test,” he warned, a reminder that the day when a COVID-19 diagnostic test is a household item as common as the hairbrush is still far away. A medical professional has to supervise the test, but it can be done anywhere: at the entrance to a school, or in the parking lot of a concert venue.

President Donald Trump leaves after an event about coronavirus testing strategy, in the Rose Garden of the White House, Monday, Sept. 28, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Trump leaves after the coronavirus testing event. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The tests in use until now mostly require sending specimens to laboratories equipped with special equipment.

The advent of a quick, relatively accurate point-of-care test does mark an important advance, especially as the nation prepares for a cold-weather coronavirus test.

Notably absent from the event were prominent members of the coronavirus task force, including Drs. Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci. Instead, there were remarks by Dr. Scott Atlas, a Stanford brain-imaging specialist whose controversial opinions on the pandemic have earned him the ire of Dr. Robert Redfield, the chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Redfield was overheard complaining on a commercial flight about Atlas, who has consistently misrepresented where the nation stands in its battle against the coronavirus.

Trump’s announcement came as the death toll from COVID-19 topped 209,000 in the U.S. Public health officials fear it could greatly increase throughout the fall and winter, as cold weather drives people indoors and quarantine fatigue sets in.

About two-thirds of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, according to polls from mid-September. Just how much he can do to change those opinions at this point is unclear, and earlier assurances of victory have likely jaded some who want to see real gains before celebrating.

“We’ve passed through a challenging time,” Vice President Mike Pence said on Monday. This, too, was a reprise of sorts. “We are winning the fight against the invisible enemy,” he wrote in a widely discussed Wall Street Journal editorial. That was in June.


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