A day after the University of Tennessee announced that it would welcome students back to its campuses in August, UT-Knoxville’s chancellor put in a call to Capitol Hill.
The university had declared that social distancing and enhanced safety procedures would be part of the “new normal.” But what exactly would that mean? The school had about three months to figure out the answer and reached out Thursday to Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, who was about to chair a hearing focusing on testing for the novel coronavirus.
Alexander put the question to National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins: What could he tell the thousands of schools across the country, which want to resume classroom learning, about the potential for widespread testing in August?
“That would be critical in terms of us going back into school and not having what would be a second or third wave of coronavirus at that very vulnerable moment when the flu season is starting up as well,” Collins said.
Collins told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee about an initiative that the NIH and private industry launched last week to develop and produce technology capable of quickly and accurately testing millions of people a week by the end of summer.
“What you want to have at that point is the ability in a community to know whether the virus is circulating. That means being able to do surveillance and immediately identifying those who are infected and getting them quarantined,” Collins said. “Having a great expansion in the number of point-of-care tests so that university presidents or chancellors have a chance of knowing the risks of bringing people back … that’s what this project is all about.”
The NIH project is aimed at eventually arming states and cities with something resembling the testing capacity they would need to restart safely. More than 40 states are already planning to have reopened their economies in some capacity by this weekend.
The NIH is soliciting submissions from scientists from around the country, and more than 1,000 have started applications, he said.
“The game is on, and it’s going to be a wild ride,” Collins said.
“This is a stretch goal that goes well beyond what most experts think will be possible. I have encountered some stunned expressions when describing these goals and this timetable. The scientific and logistical challenges are truly daunting, but I remain optimistic because of the track record of American ingenuity.”
Listening to the hearing via videoconference, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) reminded her colleagues that it had been two months since President Trump claimed falsely that everyone who wants a test can get one.
“We now have well over 1 million COVID cases and more than 73,000 deaths and no plan to bridge the huge gaps in testing across the country,” Murray said. “Instead states are left to respond with limited federal support and blind spots on how the virus has spread.”
The U.S. COVID-19 death toll climbed past 75,000 Thursday, with more than 1.25 million confirmed cases, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Murray said about 260,000 tests were completed Tuesday in the U.S. — far from the 500,000 to 5 million per day experts have said are necessary to fight the virus in the midst of reopening. She asked Collins if a national plan for testing should include specific numbers for testing capacity.
Collins demurred, saying, “This is the job of the coronavirus task force” and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I hope this doesn’t turn into a hearing about Trump,” said Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.).
This week, the president suggested the White House task force could stop meeting around Memorial Day, before reversing course on Wednesday. “I had no idea how popular the task force is,” Trump said.
On Thursday, reports surfaced that the Trump administration had chosen not to release a document by the CDC offering detailed advice to local governments on when to reopen public places amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The administration has sought to put the responsibility on states, rather than the federal government, to handle the response to the coronavirus outbreak.
“You really need to have a federal standard,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said Thursday during a news briefing on Capitol Hill. “As we know, viruses know no borders. I think the way this has been handled is most unfortunate. First of all they had guidelines which were weak, then the president said you don’t even have to honor them, now we find out there was a CDC report which had much more comprehensive guidelines and they buried it in the White House.”
Pelosi said increased resources to build better testing capability would be a key part of a “CARES 2” stimulus package, along with federal aid for financially strapped states and municipalities to prevent them from having to lay off or furlough the people who are fighting COVID-19 on the front lines.
Thursday made clear again that every state finds itself on a different part of the reopening spectrum.
In Hawaii, authorities are cracking down on tourists who are flouting strict requirements that they quarantine for 14 days after arriving. A newlywed California couple were arrested after leaving their Waikiki hotel room repeatedly, despite being warned by hotel staff, according to officials. Hawaii’s rules have helped keep infections relatively low, with 17 deaths due to COVID-19 as of Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday removed jail as a punishment for violating his coronavirus restrictions after conservatives’ outrage over the jailing of a Dallas salon owner. In a swift reversal of his own rules, Abbott said his new order would free Shelley Luther, who was booked in the Dallas County jail this week for keeping her salon open.
In New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio has repeatedly warned of a “boomerang” effect if the city does not reopen safely.
“Even though we are confident by nature as New Yorkers, there’s uncertainty pervading this whole experience,” De Blasio said. “The most important question we all ask is, have I gotten this disease already, or will I get it? The uncertainty is directly related to the lack of testing that has been the reality from day one.
“To feel our natural confidence as New Yorkers, the key is more and more testing.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.