On a sunny afternoon two weeks ago, President Trump stood in front of the White House and promised the US a way to get tested for COVID-19. Google was working on a new website, he said, which would give every American consumer an easy way to see if they should be tested and find a place to get that test. Vice President Pence had promised a “dramatic increase in testing capacity” at a press conference a few days earlier — and now, it looked like an American tech giant was swooping in to make good on the promise.
“Google is going to develop a website... to determine if a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location,” Trump said at the press conference. “We cover very, very strongly our country. Stores in virtually every location. Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now. They have made tremendous progress.”
“Google is going to develop a website...”
It’s now clear that nothing of the kind was actually happening. Google was blindsided by the announcement; the 1,700 engineers were taken from a volunteer list. None of the company’s subsequent projects have offered anything like the comprehensive testing promised by the White House. Google launched a COVID-19 information page the next week, but it had little to do with testing. Yesterday, Verily rolled out details of its drive-through testing unit, but it’s restricted to a handful of counties in California, and there’s no indication it will ever cover the entire country. Most importantly, it doesn’t expand testing to include anyone who wasn’t already eligible. It simply isn’t getting more tests to more people.
There have been lots of false starts and bad promises in this White House’s outbreak response, but it’s worth spending a minute to focus on this one. Every country that has gotten the outbreak under control has done so by relentlessly working to identify everyone who has contracted the virus — through both contact tracing and random population tests — then cordoning off the infected population. Right now, US doctors barely have enough testing to handle hospitalized patients, much less look for the mild or asymptomatic cases who are helping to drive the spread of this disease.
A functional public health response would use every available resource to expand testing, but as the epidemic has spread, our testing capacity simply hasn’t kept pace. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, we didn’t reach 10,000 tests a day until March 17th. South Korea — a much smaller country that has largely contained the virus — reached that point almost immediately.
The biggest problem with Trump’s plan was that it never addressed the real problem with US testing. His website would have been a new way for the average person to submit samples and receive results, but the limited resource is the laboratory work that happens in between those steps. Lots of health care providers have set up places to collect samples (really, all it takes is a swab), but we simply don’t have enough equipment and resources in labs to test as many samples as we need. In California alone, a backlog of more than 48,000 test results is still pending. Clever as it is, Verily’s site can’t address that backlog; it’s not in the laboratory business. It’s as if someone built a new website for ordering face masks but didn’t check whether there were any left in the warehouse.
You may not be surprised by all this. Again, Trump has blustered in with ambitious promises and vague details, then moved on to another distraction before the facts can catch up. He does this so much that it can feel pointless to call him out for it: there was the wall, the China tariffs, rewriting NAFTA, the North Korean nuclear deal — on and on and on until you can’t keep track of it all. There’s never any political cost, so the details become irrelevant. Dwelling on them can make you feel like you’re the only one not getting the joke.
But the scale and velocity of this crisis are different, and the stakes are much higher. We don’t have two weeks to waste on empty promises. We don’t have time to play games.
On the day Trump held his press conference, there were 2,133 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States. Two weeks later, there are more than 85,000, the most of any country in the world. If infections keep growing at this rate — roughly 35 percent each day — the next two weeks will put us over 5 million. An optimistic 1 percent mortality rate would project 50,000 dead from those infections alone, roughly the number of enlisted US soldiers who died in the Vietnam War.
There’s a way out of this. We need testing — enough to test asymptomatic people at scale and begin to isolate the contagious population. We need ventilators to sustain the lives of thousands of gravely ill patients who are already overwhelming hospitals. We need gloves and face masks to keep health care providers safe through the treatment process so we can keep those same hospitals staffed through the coming months of crisis.
And behind all of those things, we need leaders who keep their promises.