WASHINGTON — Four key government health care officials said Tuesday that despite recent remarks from President Trump, they were never ordered to “slow down” diagnostic testing for Covid-19.
Their testimony at a congressional hearing came just three days after the president, at a campaign rally, told supporters that he had ordered a deceleration of Covid-19 testing. During a rally in Tulsa, Okla., Trump misleadingly escalated his long-standing claim that the high U.S. case count is simply a result of thorough testing.
“When you do testing to that extent, you’re gonna find more people, you’re gonna find more cases,” Trump said. “So I said to my people, ‘slow the testing down, please.’”
White House aides quickly scrambled to downplay the remarks, insisting that the president was speaking in jest. Trump doubled down on Tuesday, however, telling a reporter “I don’t kid” and again referring to Covid-19 testing as a “double-edged sword.”
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers alluded to the president’s remarks as they questioned the four federal witnesses, three of whom were appointed by Trump: Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease researcher; Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; assistant health secretary Brett Giroir; and Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
Asked in turn whether Trump had directed them to slow down testing, each responded that he had not.
“To my knowledge, none of us have ever been told to slow down on testing — that just is a fact,” said Fauci. “In fact, we will be doing more testing … not only testing to specifically identify people [and] identify, isolate, and contact-trace, but also much more surveillance.”
He added: “It’s the opposite: We’re going to be doing more testing, not less.”
Giroir echoed Fauci’s unequivocal denial in the face of aggressive questioning from Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), responding: “We want to do more testing, of higher quality.”
While the U.S. has conducted nearly 30 million Covid-19 tests, its per-capita testing rate still lags well behind that of peer nations including Spain, Russia, and the United Kingdom. Testing volumes, health experts say, do not come close to accounting for surging case totals in states including Florida, Texas, and Arizona.
It is also unclear whether Trump could slow testing by fiat even if he tried: Most testing is administered at a local level by health clinics, pharmacies, and individual doctor’s offices, and is not carried out within the federal government’s jurisdiction.
Nonetheless, Trump’s comments reflect his increasingly bold attempts to downplay the coronavirus crisis, which has killed roughly 120,000 Americans in the past four months. Public health experts have said the president’s false insistence Covid-19 is “dying out,” despite hard evidence to the contrary, could have dangerous public health ramifications.