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Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis shows the limits of relying on testing alone

Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis shows the limits of relying on testing alone


Masks and distancing have to go with testing

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President Trump Departs White House For New Jersey
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A 74-year-old man said he was one of 46,459 people to test positive for the coronavirus in the United States yesterday. This diagnosis was stunning and destabilizing — unlike the diagnoses of the other 46,458 people — because that man is the president of the United States. Just like every other person in the US, President Donald Trump was still at risk of catching the virus — and he repeatedly disregarded advice that could have reduced his risk.

Trump had access to more resources than most other people in the country: he’s tested regularly for COVID-19, as are the people he regularly comes into contact with. Testing wasn’t enough to keep the virus out of that inner circle — not when he was disregarding other public health advice. The announcement is a vivid reminder that testing alone isn’t going to stop the coronavirus. It has to be paired with other protective measures like distancing and masks.

We’ve known since February that this virus would probably spread rapidly and easily between people, and would be hard to avoid. Most of the cases could be mild, and many people would be just fine, but the virus would persist. Since then, we’ve learned more about how it spreads. It thrives in big groups, in poorly ventilated rooms, when people spend long amounts of time together — and when they aren’t taking precautions like wearing masks.

Trump spent months downplaying the effects of the deadly virus, and minimizing the importance of protective measures. He’s continued to hold and attend rallies, some indoors, and doesn’t wear a mask regularly. The people around him don’t, either.

Frequent testing can’t make up for all of those risky activities — there are just too many openings for the virus to jump from one person to another in a crowd, or inside, or during a close conversation. The COVID-19 tests on the market, especially the rapid ones, can miss people who are in the early stages of an infection and don’t have a lot of virus in their system yet. It’s possible for someone to test negative one day, and then test positive the next — and they could have been contagious all along.

Testing also only helps control the spread of a disease if people act on the results of their tests. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people isolate themselves from others after they learn they’ve been exposed. Instead, Trump reportedly maintained his schedule, including attending a fundraiser, after he’d learned he’d been exposed to the virus. That could have placed many other people, including service workers, at a higher risk of catching the disease.

Like any other 74-year-old man with COVID-19, President Trump is at a high risk of having a severe case of COVID-19 — the virus is most dangerous to people over 65, and men tend to get sicker than women. But once again, he’ll prove unique among the other people who tested positive at the same time: he’ll have access to the highest quality medical care.

This is a notable case, but in a lot of ways, it’s also the standard story of COVID-19 in the United States, which still has the largest outbreak of COVID-19 in the world. We don’t have the virus under control. COVID-19 is an infectious disease, and it won’t spare you just because you’re the president.