Hanage says it’s difficult to know exactly how long such interventions need to be in place. Public health officials can’t just pick a date on a calendar. Instead, they need data: most crucially, data showing how many people have been infected, recovered, and are now immune to the virus. But those kinds of studies require blood tests for antibodies, which are still in development. It could take months before such information becomes available.
In the meantime, if the Trump administration is serious about sending people back to work, they’ll have to first get serious about beefing up testing, screening, and monitoring, says Hanage. Building more capacity is essential for healthcare workers to be able to effectively identify infectious people and encourage them to self-isolate. Shortages in supplies needed to run those tests are still plaguing efforts to expand testing to everyone who needs it.
The US learned of its first coronavirus case the same day that South Korea did, back in January. By last week, that country of 51 million had already conducted over 300,000 tests; a per-capita rate more than 40 times that of the US, according to a recent report by The New York Times. In contrast, the US, with a population of 330 million, has just this week surpassed 270,000 completed tests, up from 4,000 a week ago, according to the Covid Tracking Project.
By testing early and often—at 600 new screening centers and 50 drive-through swabbing stations—public health officials in South Korea were able to quickly map how the virus spread through the population. This epidemiological detective work allowed health workers to isolate people suspected of being contagious, without having to order the entire nation’s population to stay at home.
On Monday, Trump hinted that he wanted the US to move closer to that model; continuing to restrict people’s movement in coronavirus hot spots while loosening up policies and letting people go back to work in places that have low numbers of infections. “We can do two things at one time,” he said.
Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, offered more details on how that might happen in the coming weeks, as increased testing capacity starts to paint a fuller picture of the scope and timing of individual outbreaks in places like New York, the Bay Area, and Washington State. “If we get data by specific zip codes and counties, we’ll be able to approach this in a very laser-focused way,” said Birx. “What we will eventually get to as a country is being able to simultaneously do contact tracing and containment at the same time as mitigation. Right now we’re just putting everything into mitigation.”
Throughout the briefing, Trump repeatedly interjected a line he had tweeted out over the weekend. “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself,” he said, referring to a rapidly deteriorating economy, triggered, the president believes, by the nation’s adoption of social distancing policies. Last week the stock market took its biggest-ever single day tumble. On Monday, researchers at Morgan Stanley said they expect the unemployment rate to quadruple by next quarter. The president is worried about how soaring unemployment numbers will play with Republican voters in his 2020 campaign for re-election, according to reports in Bloomberg and The Washington Post.
These fears appear to be part of the motivation for the president’s desire to reboot the economy, even in the face of a public health crisis that is deepening daily. Health officials inside the administration have mostly opposed the idea of sending people back to work, including Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Fauci, who has contradicted Trump in recent days, openly advocating for tough and prolonged distancing measures, was notably absent from the podium Monday night. When asked where he was, Trump replied, “He’s not here because we really weren’t discussing what he’s best at, but he’ll be back up very soon.”