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Trump touts testing efforts as virus spreads to White House

The COVID-19 pandemic has killed over 80,000 people and infected more than 1.3 million in the U.S. -- including some in the White House, where several officials are isolating after possible exposure. But the movement to lift restrictions is gaining steam, even though health experts say testing is still not adequate. Yamiche Alcindor reports and joins Judy Woodruff and William Brangham to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As of tonight, COVID-19 has taken the lives of more than 80,000 people in the United States. The pandemic has also infected well over 1.3 million people nationwide, including now some in the White House.

    We begin with our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor, and the day's developments.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In much of the country, the push to reopen is gaining steam.

  • Dan Holmes:

    Right now, I have 100 percent of an empty dining room. So, if you allow me 50 percent, we're cool with it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Just as the top scientists at the White House advising President Trump are being forced into self-isolation.

    Three White House officials leading the nation's pandemic response are all sequestered, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Stephen Hahn, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

    They are doing so after coming into contact with key White House staffers who have tested positive. Today, the White House directed all West Wing staff to wear masks at all times in the building, except when they are at their own desks.

    Today, at a briefing in the Rose Garden, President Trump weighed in.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We have a lot of people coming in and out. Many of those people, most of those people are tested, depending on what portion of the Oval Office area they're going in.

    Everybody coming into the president's office gets tested. And I felt no vulnerability whatsoever.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But President Trump disputed suggestions that, while testing is readily available at the White House, it is still not for the general public.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We're number one in the world by far, by a factor of two and even three and four, depending on where you are looking. And I get a question, when will everybody be able to get tested?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Just last week, the president's personal valet tested positive for COVID-19. Yet, over the weekend, the president met with military leaders without a mask, though CDC guidance that the White House has encouraged Americans to follow says masks can help stop the spread of the virus.

    Some White House officials have also voiced worries, including economic adviser Kevin Hassett.

  • Kevin Hassett:

    It is scary to go to work. I think that I'd be a lot safer if I was sitting at home than I would be going to the West Wing.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The press secretary for Vice President Pence, Katie Miller, also tested positive for COVID-19. She has been at many of the task force meetings, working closely with senior officials.

    Pence's office is pushing back on reports that he is — quote — "self-isolating." He will continue working in his White House office while making sure to practice social distancing.

    Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, who met with Vice President Pence twice last week, said today she would also self-quarantine.

    All of this comes amid reports that, in recent weeks, the White House mishandled efforts to collect and distribute personal protective equipment. But the president continues to strongly defend the response. He rejects criticism that the states lack testing to ensure they can safely lift restrictions.

    Instead, he is pressing for businesses to reopen.

  • President Donald Trump:

    But we have to get our country open again. And you see it. Look, you cover it. People want to go back. You're going to have a problem if you don't do it.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Pressure to reopen the economy comes as U.S. unemployment reaches its highest rate since the Great Depression.

    In April, more than 20 million Americans filed for unemployment. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told CNBC today he is optimistic about the potential effects of reopening efforts.

  • Secretary Steven Mnuchin:

    But I think the numbers are going to be getting better as we go into the summer and we reopen the economy. And that's the important issue here.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Meanwhile, New York state, which had been the nation's hottest spot in the pandemic, today laid out plans to reopen. That comes as the state hit its lowest daily death total since March.

    In Rochester, Governor Andrew Cuomo said, in some regions, low-risk businesses and activities can restart after May 15.

  • Governor Andrew Cuomo:

    We're talking about a phased reopening. That's what basically everyone is doing. The question is moderating that phasing and doing it intelligently.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    At the same time, a new CDC report found that deaths from the coronavirus in New York City may actually be some 5,000 higher than the official tally. Many of those may have been in nursing homes.

    The White House today recommended testing for more than a million nursing home residents and staff nationwide in the next two weeks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Yamiche joins me now, along with our own William Brangham.

    So, Yamiche, first of all, the fact that you now have several people in the White House testing positive for COVID, how is this affecting the ability of the White House to stay on top of this, to monitor and manage this crisis?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Judy, it's pretty remarkable.

    Of course, the country as a whole, the world has a whole has been upended by the coronavirus, but the White House itself, its functioning, has been completely upended by this virus. You have multiple people now that have worked inside the White House who have tested positive, people who have worked closely with the president and the vice president.

    You now have the vice president not completely self-isolating, not completely in self-quarantine, but officials tell me that he is keeping his distance and trying to lay low.

    You also, of course, have those top scientists who are now going to be testifying before Congress on remote because they too are self-isolating after coming into contact with someone who has now tested positive.

    And then you have this remarkable thing that happened today, which was that the White House said every West Wing staffer is now going to have to wear a mask. The only reason why I'm not wearing a mask right now is because I'm literally standing very close to the White House, but not near the White House.

    When I'm inside, I'm wearing a mask. The person who isn't wearing a mask, President Trump. He said that he does not feel as though he needs to wear masks if he's not close to anyone.

    But there are a lot of questions still there and whether or not the president himself might start wearing a mask, because that — because every staffer in the White House is now being told they need to do that to stop the spread of this virus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Yamiche, we know the president spent part of the weekend criticizing a number of people. What do we know — what more do we know about his managing, his handling all of this?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    That's right, Judy.

    The president spent the weekend and today lashing out at people that he sees as his opponents, talking about the media, talking about Democrats, saying that they're really out to get him.

    He talked about the fact that the media is the enemy of the people. And if you look at all the tweets that he sent — I think we're putting them up for people — there are just all sorts of tweets where he's going after, dozens and dozens of tweets.

    The president, of course, has been known to tweet and been known to want to use his millions of followers as a way to talk to the American people. But, in this regard, it was something that was really quite different than what he's done in the past.

    One thing that is different is that President Obama, there was some leaked audio of him saying that the president — that President Trump's reaction to the coronavirus was a — quote — "chaotic disaster."

    So the president has been talking about the fact that he doesn't like that Obama was criticizing him. One other thing, the president held a briefing today in the Rose Garden. He talked about testing. He stressed that any American who wants or needs a coronavirus test can get a test.

    There are officials, of course, and governors that are pushing back on that, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, at that point, I want to bring William in, because, William, you have done a lot of reporting on this.

    What do we know about whether what the White House is talking about is adequate for what the needs are, and in particular for people, for businesses to feel comfortable for every place to open up?

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, according to all public health experts, we are nowhere near enough testing in this country.

    I mean, the president touts that we are doing a record number of tests. And while that is true — we have never tested for coronavirus at this capacity — we are nowhere near what needs to be done in order to really get our hands around the epidemic that we are suffering under.

    The estimates vary. I mean, we are at about 300,000 tests being done per day. That sounds like a lot. But Harvard's Global Health Institute last week put out a study that estimated that we needed to be at 900,000 tests per day, so that we are — a huge gap. We're only a third of the way there.

    I mean, we heard from Caitlin Rivers, testified before Congress. She's an expert at Johns Hopkins University. She told Congress last week that, while the estimates vary, we could be needing 3.5 to tens of millions of tests per week. We are nowhere near that.

    So, regardless of what the president says, and says how we are putting out a record number of tests, it's still not enough.

    And, again, the thing that we keep hearing is, of course we need to get the economy open. People want to go back to work. But, as a business owner, as someone who runs a restaurant or a nursing home or a meatpacking plant or any of the places that we have seen suffer outbreaks, how can you legitimately bring people back to work if you can't tell who is sick and who is not?

    That is a recipe for more outbreaks. And that's the problem we have. This gap in testing leaves us vulnerable to seeing an increased spike in cases.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, William, to be concrete, what do we know about the administration's record on delivering widespread testing and how that compares to what the president and his team are saying?

  • William Brangham:

    Well, we have seen a series of statements put out by the president and by the White House that are, frankly, not accurate.

    The president, at that infamous meeting when he was down at the CDC, said, anyone who wants to get a test in the country can get one.

    We know that is not true. To this day, that is not true. There are places all over the country — and, again, not every state is the same. But there are places all over the country where people are desperate for more testing, need more testing. They can't get it.

    That is not accurate.

    Back in March, the White House promised that we would have 27 million tests by that month. That is not true. Many people have criticized the president's unwillingness to really use the Defense Production Act to try to address some of the critical shortages for the testing materials, the swabs, the chemicals, the protective gear, that you need to build a robust testing system.

    We were promised drive-through testing centers at Walgreens and Walmart and all over the country. Very, very few of those have actually opened. Google was supposed to open a Web site that was going to direct people to testing. That has not come through.

    So, again, the thing that's, I think, frustrating to a lot of public health experts is that they argue, if you really want the economy to be growing again and to get people out of their homes safely and back to work, you have to know who is infected and who is not.

    And the first step in that process is testing. And we are just falling down on the job in that regard right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, William, we heard the president again today and an HHS official both say that anyone who wants a test can get one. That is what they are saying at the White House today.

    William Brangham, Yamiche Alcindor, thank you both.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • William Brangham:

    You're welcome, Judy.

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