White House unveils blueprint to expand state testing as governors weigh lifting stay-at-home orders

WASHINGTON – The White House unveiled a blueprint on Monday designed to help states expand coronavirus testing and rapid response programs as governors weigh gradually lifting stay-at-home orders and reopening schools and businesses.

“We want to get our country open, and the testing is not going to be a problem at all,” Trump proclaimed in unveiling a plan that comes after weeks of complaints from state officials about the slow pace of federal testing.

The blueprint outlines the federal government’s role in assisting states with access to testing platforms, increasing testing and laboratory supplies as well as enhancing sample collection, according to a copy of the plan reviewed by USA TODAY.

At an earlier meeting with retail business leaders involved in developing coronavirus tests, Trump said that things are “going really well.” Some of those business leaders from companies including CVS, Walmart, Walgreens and others, later spoke at a Rose Garden news conference to unveil the plan, pledging to increase development and delivery of test kits and equipment.

Trump also said he discussed testing during a conference call with the nation’s governors and heard “no complaints.” He said he spoke to governors about lifting coronavirus restrictions, including the reopening of schools before the end of the school year. 

“I think you will see a lot of schools open up, even for a short period of time. It will be a good thing,” Trump said. “I know there are some governors who are not necessarily ready to open up the state, but maybe the school systems. The word is safety. Rapid, but safety.” 

Under the plan, the Trump administration would send each state enough tests to screen at least 2% of their residents, a number that critics said is too low. Trump aides said states remain responsible for acquiring their own test kits, and many have enough to test higher numbers.

The states have to develop their own testing plans, according to the new blueprint, while the federal government should be the “supplier of last resort.”

In past weeks, some governors and other critics have attacked the Trump administration for failing to provide a sufficient number of test kits, hurting the efforts of states to track the spread of the virus.

Trump has “pushed sole responsibility to governors while telling them to fly blind without the critical data we derive from testing,” said Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who promoted his own testing plan on Monday.

Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington also criticized the blueprint for putting too much burden on states. 

“This document does nothing new and will accomplish nothing new. It doesn’t set specific, numeric goals, offer a time frame, identify ways to fix our broken supply chain, or offer any details whatsoever on expanding lab capacity or activating needed manufacturing capacity,” Murray said. “Perhaps most pathetically, it attempts to shirk obviously federal responsibilities by assigning them solely to states instead.”

Earlier this month the White House coronavirus task force issued a three-phase plan aimed at helping states determine when to ease restrictions and allow residents to begin returning to work. But critics were quick to point out the broad guidelines lacked details on how states could achieve some of the benchmarks without the availability of widespread testing. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is implementing a new program in which “community protection teams” are assisting state and local governments in “performing core public health functions, including epidemiology, monitoring, laboratory analytics, and contract tracing,” according to a copy of the blueprint. 

Trump appeared in the Rose Garden on Monday after the coronavirus task force took a two-day break from holding daily press briefings. 

The absence of weekend briefings came after Trump was criticized  for suggesting during a briefing Thursday that doctors look at ways to inject heat, light, and disinfectants into the body to somehow kill the virus. The president made only a brief statement at Friday’s briefing, then left the podium without taking questions. 

As Trump and aides debated the value of coronavirus briefings, they canceled a news conference set for Monday before reinstating it hours later.

Though the Trump administration has come under fire for a lack of an organized system for coronavirus testing, senior administration officials said each state needs to conduct its own testing because they have different needs and different health care systems that evaluate diagnostic testing in different ways.

State officials and citizens have said for weeks they have been unable to get tested, despite Trump’s March 6 proclamation that “anybody that wants a test can get a test. That’s what the bottom line is.”

The challenging complexity of testing for the virus, combined with the different “platforms” in each state, is the reason it has taken as long as it has to develop the system. One official said it is a “miracle” the blueprint has been developed as quickly as possible.

Officials said they are putting the responsibility on the states, which are already administering the tests. The federal government’s role is to provide supplies, they said.

“It’s not on the governors,” one official said. “It’s a partnership between us and them.”

As part of a wider effort to help states access widespread testing, the administration said it is working with diagnostics companies and academic researchers to develop the “next generation” of tests, according to the document. 

The president has encouraged governors to “liberate” their states and defended people protesting social-distancing measures enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Some governors, including in Oklahoma, Montana, South Carolina, and Texas, have since announced plans to relax coronavirus restrictions, though Trump slammed Republican Gov. Brian Kemp’s aggressive move to reopen salons, tattoo parlors and bowling alleys in Georgia this weekend. Trump told reporters last week he “strongly” disagrees with Kemp’s plan.