Senate Republicans are warning that it’s too soon to scale back testing amid an increase in coronavirus cases.
President Trump sparked days of confusion when he said over the weekend that he had asked staff to “slow down the testing, please.” On Tuesday, he muddied the water further by arguing fewer tests would result in recording fewer cases.
But GOP senators say there’s no evidence the United States is ready to ease up on the number of daily tests, which they think should be increased until there is a vaccine.
“No, no, no. We need tests and we need … millions of them, tens of millions of them, especially when we start opening up this fall,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) when asked if the country could reduce testing.
“Until we have a vaccine, the only way people are going to feel comfortable, I think — going outside, doing all the things that we want them to do — is to have just massive amounts of tests,” he added.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told reporters that the country needed to be carrying out testing and would be increasing, not reducing, its testing capacity.
“They help us contain the disease, number one. And number two, they build confidence that we can go back to school, back to work and out to eat. So, in fact we’re dramatically expanding the number of tests in the country and we should do that,” said Alexander, who is retiring at the end of the year.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) added that the country needed “more and more testing,” while Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told reporters after a closed-door caucus lunch that “we need as much testing as we can get.”
Trump has faced a combination of criticism and confusion for his remarks at a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., on Saturday when he claimed he had “said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please!’ ”
Asked about the comment multiple times Monday, Trump told the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) that he had not told his staff to ease up on testing but that he believed widespread testing “put ourselves at a disadvantage.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that the comment was “made in jest” and that he did not direct officials to slow any testing. But asked on Tuesday if his comments were made in jest, Trump replied: “I don’t kid.”
The see-saw has put a spotlight on the division between the president’s skepticism of widespread testing and top health officials in the administration who are supportive of more testing.
“It’s hard for me to follow that old jokester because it’s the same kind of irrational babble that we’ve heard from the start when it comes to this COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “He’s been dreaming up cures and making up stories to the point where he has no credibility.”
Trump has repeatedly described testing as having downsides in media interviews and tweets in recent days. He said during the CBN interview that widespread testing makes the U.S. “in a way, look bad but actually we’re doing the right thing.”
He then asserted in a Tuesday morning tweet that the recent increase in cases was tied to more testing, adding that “with smaller testing we would show fewer cases!”
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told House lawmakers that, to his knowledge, he and other top officials have not been told to slow down testing.
“I know for sure that, to my knowledge, none of us have ever been told to slow down on testing,” he said. “That just is a fact. In fact, we will be doing more testing.”
Fauci added that Trump’s comments do not reflect the administration’s actions.
“It’s the opposite,” Fauci said. “We’re going to be doing more testing, not less.”
The administration faced criticism during the initial response to the coronavirus for a lack of widespread, available testing. The U.S. has performed more than 28 million tests, according to the Covid Tracking Project, and leads the world in coronavirus cases with more than 2.3 million positive tests.
Some GOP senators said while the country needs to keep ramping up testing, they also believe that the president was joking about directing staff to slow it down.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), an adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said testing was helping reassure the public as states begin to lift social distancing restrictions.
“Testing is not just about trying to find the virus, it’s about building public confidence. I think more and different types of testing are very helpful,” Cornyn said, adding that he thought Trump was joking.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said the media was trying to make the president’s comments a “real thing” because of a “narrative.”
“Donald Trump, in his comedic way, references the fact that we test more than any other country, it’s been so fast that … it identifies more people with the disease,” he said.