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Public health expert decries ‘total abdication of federal leadership’ on COVID-19 testing

More than half of U.S. states have started lifting pandemic restrictions and reopening their economies. But questions remain about how to resume business while maintaining social distancing. In addition, testing for COVID-19 remains relatively limited, with about 250,000 tests per day conducted nationwide. Judy Woodruff talks to Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    More than half the states in the U.S. have started to partially reopen their economies or plan to do soon.

    But even as business and political pressure grows to reopen, there are questions about how to do that with social distancing and a shortage of tests for some who want one. There's an average of about 250,000 tests being taken each day in the U.S.

    Dr. Ashish Jha is focused on those very questions, as the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. And we're going to talk about that and the federal government's role in responding to the pandemic with him.

    Dr. Jha, thank you for joining us again on the "NewsHour."

    So, what should ideally happen before a state starts to reopen?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Yes, so thank you for having me on.

    You know, the president's own guidelines, which are ones that we all largely agree with, suggest that states have to dramatically reduce the number of cases and then have adequate testing, tracing and isolation infrastructure.

    Both of those are necessary. And some states have reduced their number of cases, but very few states have the kind of testing necessary to really safely reopen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so, when we learn, as we did today, that the White House has rejected a proposal, a very detailed proposal put together by the Centers for Disease Control, the CDC, and said, essentially, it's up to the states, what does that say about having the right protocol, the right safety precautions in place before people are allowed to move around?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Yes, this is a total abdication of federal leadership.

    The longstanding deal between states and the federal government has been that states run public health, and the federal government provides technical expertise, finances, all of the help that states need.

    And that's what the CDC was doing in this report. They were helping states figure out, how do we open up safely? And the fact that that was quashed by the White House, and the — and the White House is saying to all the states, hey, you're on your own, figure it out, it goes against our entire history of federalism and how the federal government has worked with states.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But what about — the argument made by the White House is these are the decisions that should be made by the states, because parts of the country have had very few cases, relative to other parts of the country, not every state is like New York, states should be able to decide this on their own?

  • Ashish Jha:

    I completely agree with that argument. That is correct. Wyoming and Montana are not like New York.

    And when I look at the data from those two states, I think they're pretty safe to open up, but the bottom line is that the federal government still needs to be involved in helping those states, you know, open up safely, have enough testing.

    We just can't leave it up to the states by themselves. They need the help from the federal government.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Jha, the program you run, the Institute on Global Health at Harvard, today issued new guidelines, new recommendations on the number of tests that should be done.

    You're saying now more than 900,000 tests a day as a country. This is a big jump from what you were recommending earlier. Why?

  • Ashish Jha:


    So our recommendations are based on the data as they are today. And when we made our initial calculations almost a month ago, the outbreak was not only, you know, smaller.

    The expectations were that social distancing was going to remain in place for the next six weeks quite aggressively, and we were going to see a big drop in the number of cases. That hasn't happened.

    Social distancing has not remained in place. States have started opening up. And so now all the projections are that we're going to have many more cases and many more deaths. And if you have a larger outbreak, you need more tests.

    So, we needed to update the analysis for the reality that exists today, not the one that existed a month ago.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Who is listening to your recommendation?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Well, we hope that policy-makers in Washington are.

    I know that states are very concerned about this. We have been speaking to governors and health departments. They're looking at these kinds of data and very worried about whether they can hit the capacity they need, whether they can achieve the number of tests.

    And the bottom line is that they can't without federal help. This is not a situation where we want 50 states competing with each other to get testing in place.

    This is possible situation where we need coordination from the White House, from the executive branch.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, that's what I want to come back to, what we were discussing at the beginning of the interview.

    What should the federal government be doing at this point in order to see that states — whether they are a state with relatively few cases or a lot, that those states can conduct the number of tests that they need to conduct?

  • Ashish Jha:

    Yes, so, you know, every state has a different set of roadblocks that they're encountering.

    And what we should have done two months ago and we can still do now is, the federal government can look at the entire chain of activity needed for tests, from swabs and media, to reagents, to machines, and make sure that it uses the tools it has, that only it has, to ramp up all of those supplies, so states can do what they can do.

    You know, these are national and global supply chains. We don't want every state going, cutting trade deals with countries to get supplies for testing. That makes no sense whatsoever. And this is why we have a federal government.

    The feds can actually do this, if they decide to make it a priority.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you're talking about those states that are already moving ahead to open up?

  • Ashish Jha:

    All the states.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I mean, all states — go ahead.

  • Ashish Jha:

    Yes. No, sorry. That's right,

    So, all the states need it. The ones that are opening up now, I'm particularly worried about. There are a couple. Again, I mentioned Montana, Wyoming, Alaska. There are a couple of these states without a big population, not many cases, that I think can open up safely.

    They still should adhere to the White House guidelines. But there are a lot of states like Georgia which don't meet any of the guidelines, have totally inadequate number of tests.

    And the idea that Georgia is going to figure this out on their own — they might, I hope they do — but I'm deeply worried that they're not going to be able to get the testing they need. And that means a lot of Georgians are going to suffer.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Ashish Jha of the Center for Global Health, thank you very much.

  • Ashish Jha:

    Thank you for having me on.

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