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Last Updated : Oct 19, 2020 07:59 AM IST | Source: New York Times

White House opposes expanded coronavirus testing, complicating US stimulus talks

Many public health experts, and some economists like Romer, say that a far more sweeping program would save lives and bolster the economy by helping as many Americans as possible learn quickly if they are infected.

New York Times

In late September, a Nobel Prize-winning economist emailed Dr. Scott W. Atlas, a White House coronavirus adviser, in what he saw as a last-ditch effort to persuade the Trump administration to embrace a sharp increase in testing and isolating infected patients. The plan, meant to appeal to a president who has complained that positive tests make his administration look bad, would not “generate any new confirmed cases.”

Atlas, a radiologist, told the economist, Paul Romer of New York University, that there was no need to do the sort of testing he was proposing.

“That’s not appropriate health care policy,” Atlas wrote.


Atlas went on to mention a theory that the virus can be arrested once a small percentage of the U.S. population contracts it. He said there was a “likelihood that only 25 or 20% of people need the infection,” an apparent reference to a threshold for so-called herd immunity that epidemiologists have widely disputed.

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The call for more widespread testing and isolation, Atlas wrote, “is grossly misguided.”

The exchange highlights the resistance in the White House toward adopting a significantly expanded federal testing program, including efforts to support infected patients in isolation and track the people they have been in contact with, even as cases and deaths continue to rise nationwide. That resistance has become a sticking point in negotiations over a new economic stimulus package, with the administration and top Democrats yet to agree on the scope and setup of an expanded testing plan.

Many public health experts, and some economists like Romer, say that a far more sweeping program would save lives and bolster the economy by helping as many Americans as possible learn quickly if they are infected — and then take steps to avoid spreading the virus.

Atlas and other administration officials playing influential roles in the government’s virus response effectively say the opposite: that more widespread testing would infringe on Americans’ privacy and hurt the economy, by keeping potentially infected workers who show no symptoms from reporting to their jobs.

Congressional Democrats have grown so frustrated with the administration’s testing efforts that as part of any agreement on a new aid package, they insisted on language that would force the government to carry out a far more prescriptive national program for administering and distributing tests.

While White House negotiators resisted those demands for months, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said he will accept such wording with minor edits. Top Democratic staff, including the top health adviser to Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, walked Mnuchin through the party’s proposal Friday, according to a person familiar with the discussion, but they had yet to announce agreement on language by early evening.

In an interview Thursday, Atlas, who is not involved in the stimulus talks, said that the United States had a “massive” testing program overall but that it should be used strategically to protect vulnerable populations, like nursing home residents — not young, healthy individuals who he said were at low risk of contracting the disease. He said that large-scale government test and isolate programs infringed on civil liberties and that new research had persuaded him that herd immunity might be achieved once 20% or 40% of Americans are infected.

“The overwhelming majority of people who get this infection are not at high risk,” Atlas said in the interview. “And when you start seeking out and testing asymptomatic people, you are destroying the workforce.”

Many congressional Republicans, who prefer to leave testing decisions to states, share Atlas’ concerns about federal testing programs, a complication if Mnuchin and Pelosi do agree on a nearly $2 trillion economic stimulus deal.

Mnuchin said Thursday that the pair had settled on spending an additional $75 billion for testing and tracing. But the sides have not yet reached agreement on the language that Democrats have demanded for a national testing strategy, including timelines and benchmarks for allocating testing supplies and testing communities heavily affected by the virus. Democrats have been wary that the administration would actually spend the money as intended without specific legislative parameters.

Pelosi said she had not received proposed changes from Mnuchin as of early Friday evening, saying in an interview on MSNBC, “We’re making progress — we have to have clarification in language.” The pair are scheduled to speak Saturday evening.

“The devil and the angels are in the detail,” she said, adding that she was opposed to “giving the president a slush fund” instead of “a prescription for what we need, what scientists tell us to need to stop the spread of this virus.”

Experts from a wide range of fields have repeatedly denounced the lack of testing in the United States. Despite Trump’s repeated affirmations that the country has done more testing than any other nation, researchers have noted that 991,000 or so tests done each day were still not enough to keep in check a virus that has infected more than 8 million people nationwide. Tests can individually diagnose people who might unknowingly carrying the virus. At the population level, they can also help health officials monitor any spread and pinpoint and quash outbreaks before they spin out of control.

Atlas’ position has been challenged by medical advisers around him who have backgrounds in infectious disease response, revealing a significant rift in the White House over the right approach. Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, has pushed for aggressive, broad testing even among young and healthy people, often clashing with Atlas in meetings.

“I would always be happy if we had 100% of students tested weekly,” Birx said Wednesday in an appearance at Penn State University, “because I think testing changes behavior.”

Since the early days of the pandemic, Romer has argued for a wide-scale testing program, costing as much as $100 billion. He had hoped to persuade Atlas that if officials could quickly identify and isolate people carrying the virus, they would slow its spread and allow normal economic activity to resume more quickly.

In his email, sent to Atlas’ personal account, Romer proposed additional testing and isolation efforts that could allow far more Americans to return to work and shopping, generating economic activity that would be 10 or 100 times larger than the cost of the testing program itself.

In an interview, he said he also “went out on a limb” to propose a version of an expanded testing plan that might appeal to Trump, who said this year that he had instructed federal officials to slow the rate of testing because “by having more tests, we have more cases.”

Romer wrote that an increase in positive test results could be “interpreted as a sign of a policy failure." He said the administration could instead consider a plan to send Americans tests they could administer themselves at home, then allow people to voluntarily self-isolate if they tested positive, which would not officially generate new “confirmed” cases.

Atlas replied that the push for such testing was the result of “a fundamental error of the public health people perpetrated on the world.”

Romer said he was taken aback by the answer: “Atlas just responded in a way that just honestly made it seem like he was in over his head,” he said.

c.2020 The New York Times Company
First Published on Oct 17, 2020 10:20 pm